Cynicism pervades drama in Berkeley about corruption in D.C.

[Woody’s Rating: ★★☆☆☆

“Kings,” which doesn’t mention his name even once, has absolutely nothing to do with Donald Trump.

And if you believe that, I’ll give you a pair of freebie tickets to his coronation in 2024.

Indeed, I’ll even let you continue to believe no buddy-buddy relationships exist between corrupt lawmakers and corrupt lobbyists.

“Kings,” which is all about the current ruptured system of governance in D.C., may be as cynical as any drama I’ve seen.

Sam Jackson (left) portrays newly elected firebrand congresswoman Sydney Millsap while Don Wood acts as Sen. John McDowell in background. Photo by Ben Krantz.

Sydney Millsap, an honest, idealistic freshman African American congresswoman and Gold Star widow first portrayed snarkily and robustly by Sam Jackson (and later equally well as an anguished dirty-tricks victim), seeks to change the dynamics because she sees clearly how money contaminates politics.

“I am not trying to be president…I am just trying to do my job,” she declares early on.

Meanwhile, a career Texas senator obligated to big bankers, John McDowell (magnificently portrayed by Don Wood as a glad-hander) and two lobbyists, up-and-coming Kate (Elissa Beth Stebbins) and already ensconced Lauren (Sarah Mitchell), ex-girlfriends who are now frenemies, all scoff individually and in cahoots at what she wants to do.

“Kings” is a dark, two-hour political satire at the Shotgun Theatre in Berkeley that parallels the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other political street-fighters among the more than 100 women elected in the 2018 midterms.

Playwright Sarah Burgess probably doesn’t believe in Good Ole Boyism, Trumpism or right-wing populism any more than she believes in the tooth fairy. Unfortunately, her own idealism often becomes a hammer with which to beat the audience into agreement via incessant repetition.

And that doesn’t take into account her frequent use of Politics 101 minutiae.

Illuminating, in contrast, is her depiction of congressional reps having to attend endless fundraisers and glad-hand meetings, and making phone calls that solicit money from big donors, rather than legislating.

Ditto her delineation of how the untrustworthy system eventually reproduces itself.

“Kings, which appeared last year off-Broadway at the Public Theater, is directed here by Joanie McBrien, who’s aided tremendously by Erin Gilley’s projections that zoom the audience back and forth to assorted locales in D.C., Vail, the Lone Star state and a Virginia hideaway/confab center at a Chili’s.

Also noteworthy is the sparse, utilitarian Angrette McCloskey-designed set.

Humor, however, may be the saving grace of “Kings.” The belly of the guy sitting immediately to my left, in fact, kept rolling as he howled with glee.

The Shotgun Players company was founded by artistic director Patrick Dooley in 1992, allegedly “with 10 eager actors and a bucket of black paint.” Plays were performed in 44 different spaces before the troupe found a permanent home in 2004 at the Ashby Stage, which purportedly became the first 100% solar-powered live theater in the United States.

A packed house “Kings” opening night gives the impression it’s thriving.

Its latest drama, for me, rates an “A” for effort and for being on the right side of the angels as opposed to the right side of the political spectrum — but a couple of grades lower for its sluggishness and execution.

Though I rarely look for them in stage productions or films, I found myself periodically hoping a fistfight, car chase or explosion would unshackle me from the verbiage.

“Kings” will play at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, through June 16. Night performances, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and some Thursdays, 8 p.m. other Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $7 to $40. Information: (510) 841-6500 or

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at or, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →