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The under-belly of politics well-explored at Ensemble Theatre; In Memoriam: Kyle Jean-Baptist

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

What could be more appropriate in this year, which leads up to a presidential election, than to examine the political hacks who run the campaigns.  Voilá,  for the start of its 36th season, Ensemble Theatre has chosen Beau  Willimon’s 2008 drama, FARRAGUT NORTH, which examines the lust for power among political hacks.

The play is very loosely based on Willimon’s experiences with Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic presidential primary election.

The plot centers on Stephen Bellamy, a wunderkind who entered the political fray as a teenager, and now in his mid-twenties, is recognized as one of the premiere speech writers and political operatives in the Democratic party.  He has hooked his wagon to an underdog presidential candidate who has due to the work of Bellamy, supposedly risen to the frontrunner just before the Iowa caucuses.

Bellamy has used his charms to manipulate the likes of Ida, a reporter for the “Washington Times” newspaper, to place appropriate leaks into the press.   Things look rosy until he is contacted by Tom, the political operative for a rival candidate with an offer to switch candidates.  In the process Tom reveals that a manipulative plan in place that makes it appear that Bellamy’s candidate is in the lead, but, in fact, the opponent has used an underhanded scheme to make what appears to be true, not to be so.

What does Bellamy do?  Out the scheme and tarnish the party?  Admit he met with Tom and show disloyalty?  Switch candidates?   Thus, the intrigue of FARRAGUT NORTH, is set.

The plot’s twists and turns are further developed by Ben, a political novice who wants Bellamy’s job, a couple of affairs centering on Molly, a smart and cute nineteen-year old intern, a drunken stupor, and a shot of underbelly political reality, which culminates with two revealing script quotes: “Don’t take this personally, it’s politics,” and “Trust over talent.”

If the plot sounds familiar, the play was retitled and became George Clooney’s 2011 Oscar-nominated film, THE IDES OF MARCH.

Having been a public relations director and speech writer for successful congressional, county commissioner, and mayoral campaigns, as well as my own election to the Elyria Board of Education, I can assure that some of what appears to be dramatic manipulation in the play has strong validity.  The game of politics is often cut-throat, people with charlatans, and there are victims, sometimes even those who have the noblest of intentions.

The title refers to the Farragut North stop on Washington, DC’s Metro which is located near the White House.  For a year and a half I exited there to go to my position as the Public Relations Director for the Volunteer Office of the White House.  The short walk to the Presidential home was often filled with participating in and sometimes hearing conversations of politicians, interns, and staff workers exchanging gossip, campaign strategies and making “deals.” These were often people interested in satisfying their ravenous political appetites and search of power.

Ensemble’s production, under the direction of Kyle Huff, in spite of some languid set changes and lighting effects, was very effective.  The script and the nicely textured character developments grabbed and held the sold out audience’s attention.

Boyishly handsome Nate Miller has the right personal charisma to make his Stephen Bellamy believable.  His nicely textured characterization had just the right degrees of cockiness and vulnerability.

Olivia Scicolone, nicely developed Molly, the intern with seemingly good intentions, but maybe with some underlying ulterior motives.

Both Chris Bizub, as Paul, Bellamy’s boss, and Ian Hinz, as Tom, the political operative for the opposing candidate, were deviously-correct.  They were the essence of backroom politicians who would do anything to win.

Ashley Bossard created in Ida the image of a reporter who would do what had to be done to get the story.

Tim Young as a waiter and Andrew Keller as Ben, the young hotshot after Bellamy’s job, were believable in their roles.  Keller, however, might have shown more victor’s pride in his last speech, showing the self-accomplishment of having not only accomplished his goal, but exceeded his fondest wishes.

The play has numerous settings.  Using a turntable was creative and made the process easier, but many of the changes were not prompt.  Some of the lighting cues were also languid, leaving actors in spotlighted frozen positions.  Both the intermission and closing lighting needed a quicker take.   The men’s clothing was not what is normally seen and worn on the election trail.  Political operatives dress in Brooks Brother suits accompanied by power ties.   None of these stumbles, however, ruined the production, but correcting them could have helped to improve the show.

Capsule judgment:  FARRAGUT NORTH is a well written script that gives the electorate an often uncomfortable view of the reality of those who plan and plot election campaigns.  Willimon’s writing gets a good production at Ensemble that is well worth seeing.

Note:  This production is being performed in the 50-seat Playground Theatre, so tickets are limited.

FARRAGUT NORTH runs Thursdays through Sundays from August 28-September 6, 2015 at Ensemble’s Playground Theatre, housed in the former  Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

Ensemble’s next production is Arthur Miller’s classic, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, starring Greg White as Willy Loman, from September 18-October 11.


IN MEMORIUM: Kyle Jean-Baptist

Former BW Musical Theatre student dies at age 21

The Broadway and local theatre communities are in shocked mourning.  Kyle Jean-Baptist, a charismatic, talented Baldwin Wallace musical theater grad, who was the youngest and first Black person to sing Jean Valjean in LES MISERABLES on Broadway, and who was to open shortly in the revival of the THE COLOR PURPLE, died when he accidentally fell off the fourth floor fire escape of his mother’s Brooklyn, NY apartment building.