Fresno Beehive

‘Farragut North’ flings us back into dirty pool of presidential politics

The timing for Fresno City College’s “Farragut North,” a warts-and-all dive into the dirty politics of presidential campaigns, isn’t great.

The production comes just days after a brutal U.S. election that can make the events in the play seem quaintly gentle in comparison. As an audience member, I had to brace myself going in for two hours of further political machinations. (At least I didn’t have to see the show within hours after the polls closing. I was out of town on opening weekend. There are two more performances Saturday, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.)

The good news: Once I was able to quell my involuntary nauseous reactions when confronted with such words as “caucus” and “Super Tuesday,” I was able to (mostly) enjoy playwright Beau Willimon’s crisp political thriller.

Willimon wrote his 2008 play based on his experiences as press aide to 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean. His greater fame is creating the American adaptation of “House of Cards” for Netflix. With its seamy focus on the back rooms and bedrooms of politics, “Farragut North” has a definite pre-”House of Cards” feel, right down to the music in this production.

Charles Erven directs the production with verve and style. Phillip Gallegos’ scenic design, involving a series of large wooden blocks that open up to a variety of settings, is intriguing, and his lighting design creates some shadowy, memorable moments. My one major concern: the length of the scene changes, which significantly slows down the pace of a production already on the pokey side.

Aaron Schoonover gives a blistering, standout performance as the main character, Stephen Bellamy, a cocky 25-year-old press aide who stumbles into an episode of political intrigue within the campaign. Schoonover’s emphatic stage presence and fierce connection with his character helps raise the stakes of the play and ratchets up the tension. I like the way he gives us swagger, petulance and despair, all in a smooth downward line. As an aspiring actor, he shows real promise.

Sabrina Lopez, as the campaign intern who adds to his complicated life, is impressive as well, offering a nuanced portrayal of what could be one-dimensional role. (Willimon’s script is exceedingly masculine to the point of being nearly trite. It’s interesting how he figured out a way to do better in terms of gender in “House of Cards.”) Michael Harrison is memorable, too, as a rival campaign manager.

I’m glad I got past my political-campaign gag reflex and took the time to see the show. (Though I’m now looking forward to an extended break.)

The strange thing about “Farragut North,” though, is how tame it can seem compared to the present day. A world in which print journalists can influence a campaign with a single inside-baseball-type campaign shakeup story? Not today. Then again, the same thing has been said about the “House of Cards” series and its wildly improbable plot twists as well alongside the 2016 presidential race. Compared to reality, sometimes fiction just can’t keep up.

Farragut North

Theater review

  • Through Saturday, Nov. 19
  • Fresno City College Studio Theatre
  • www.fresnocitycollege.edu, 559-442-8221
  • $14, $12 students and seniors
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