‘Commander’ at Vagabond Players

It’ll be nice to look back a few years from now and say: “I told you so!”

Mario Correa’s Commander, which opened on The Vagabond Players’ stage in Fells Point July 11th, has the vibe of a blockbuster. It’s as current and gripping as the ongoing 2016 presidential election cum soap opera – and feels like it will be a surefire hit on 1,000 movie screens nationwide in the very near future.

The script deftly combines drama, passion, politics, current cutting-edge issues and comedy. The cast, a well-oiled ensemble, acts as if they were born to their roles.

Thom Sinn, Mark Scharf. Photo by Chelsea Dove.
Thom Sinn and Mark Scharf. Photo by Chelsea Dove.

This fast-paced production marks Chelsea Dove’s debut as a director. It may be her first, but the level of professionalism in the 100-seat theater was so high and polished, it could just as easily have been her tenth or 50th.

Vagabond Players is now in its 99th season as America’s oldest continuously operating little theatre. It would be easy for Vagabond Players to play it safe – producing just the classics from its archives. Stepping out on a limb with this dynamic, edgy production, laden with red-hot issues and served with a heaping dose of foul language (F-Bomb alert!), is a bold move on the part of this feisty little theatre. Kudos.

With a presidential campaign-circus that includes a reality show star and several lackluster current and former governors happening in real time, the fictive Rhode Island Governor Ned Worley’s desire to throw his hat into the ring shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.

Except he’s gay.
Openly gay.
With a partner.
Not a spouse.

With a thin political resume that includes a city council post and authorship of a Walter Mondale bio, Worley was elected Lieutenant Governor in the tiny state, and, when his predecessor was impeached, took over as governor.

Actor Mark Scharf, who looks as if he could easily jump on the “real” 2016 presidential candidate circus bandwagon, bites deeply into this role and runs with it. He portrays the passion, fire and desire of the real deal, who must also, wearily, stamp out fires at home. While many gay characters portrayed onstage in the past – and today – have an over-the-top persona – Scharf’s character represents the other 98 percent who exist in the day-to-day world. And seek to change it by working within the system.

You almost want to vote for him.  (Instead, I voted by putting money in the donations jar in the lobby.)

David Shoemaker, Jeff Murray. Photo by Tom Lauer.
David Shoemaker, Jeff Murray. Photo by Tom Lauer.

To prepare his campaign, Worley tries to enlist the Machiavellian talents of a fading campaign manager Frank DeSantis (Jeff Murray) and his assistant Zack Maines (David Shoemaker). Worley’s ambitions must overcome public doubts, his personal demons and the objections of his partner Richard Gilly (Thom Sinn), a talented but alcoholic high school English teacher.

DeSantis, desperate for a campaign to run, isn’t sure Worley is his meal ticket. He’s a homophobe and certain Worley’s lifestyle will not play well with the voters, especially those in the critical Iowa caucus.

Gilly isn’t sure he wants his relationship with Worley X-rayed by a critical media and exposed to the world. His sense of humor could also present problems.

So could his non-stop drinking.

Upon meeting DeSantis, who calls him Mr. Gilly, he trills, “I’m Richard, but you can call me Jackie O!”

The script for Commander was a runner-up for the 2014 National Latino Playwriting Award and a semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference. Sections of the play have been updated to reflect the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on same-sex marriage last month.

DeSantis, as portrayed by Jeff Murray, is a belligerent, sweaty, bald guy with a strong Brooklyn working class accent. He quickly takes over Worley’s life and begins rewriting details of the politician’s past.

Focus group results make DeSantis confident the campaign has a chance.

“Voters are like girls at Smith College,” he says. “They’re ready to experiment.”

“I’m a realist.”

The show opens with Worley filming a commercial, filled with surging patriotic music. DeSantis repeatedly stops the unseen camera to correct the candidate’s delivery of Worley’s message.

The two fuss over the phrases “a widow,” “a woman of faith,” and “I fought cancer and WON!”

“Like Lance Armstrong,” says Maines helpfully.

“NOT Lance Armstrong,” rebukes a horrified DeSantis.

Worley strides across the stage that, save for one scene, remains the same throughout the show though locations change. The floor, sides and rear of the stage have been painted with signs and banners announcing Worley’s campaign for president. A wide screen attached to the bumped out rear wall blares a version of the sign. Wide, graphic, painted ribbons of red and blue coil and unfurl across the floor and walls. A white leather couch sits up front, stage left. Behind it, against the wall, is a fully stocked – and oft-used – bar. A simple white desk and two chairs are placed on the right side of the stage.

 Thom Sinn, Fiona Ford, David Shoemaker, Jeff Murray. Photo by Tom Lauer.

Thom Sinn, Fiona Ford, David Shoemaker, Jeff Murray. Photo by Tom Lauer.

DeSantis and Maine’s tutelage of Worley continues through the show.

Going over the schedule for his first appearance in Iowa, at a bull roast, Worley announces he doesn’t eat meat.

DeSantis explodes.

“You don’t get to be both homosexual AND a vegan!”

Foina Ford, in brief appearances as newspaper journalist Sally Guttman and TV talk show host Jackie Braden, nearly upends Worley’s ambitions as her penetrating questions cause Worley to mis-speak or Gilly to misbehave.

Scene stealer: Thom Sinn for his performance as the alcoholic Richard Gilly, an eye-rolling character that is, at times, the only sane one in the room. He certainly steals the show with his announcement of where he and his partner first met.

Running Time: About 2 hours 10 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.

Commander plays through July 16, 2015 at the Vagabond Players – 806 South Broadway, in Fells Point, in Baltimore, MD.  For tickets call  (410) 563-9135, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

Previous articleNew Play Reading: ‘THE LOATHING’: This Monday, July 20th at 7:00 p.m., at Iona Senior Services
Next article‘The Springfield Boys’ at The Seventh Street Playhouse at the Greenbelt Arts Center
Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!