By Robert Nott The Santa Fe New Mexican
As soon as he opened his email account, Bill O’Neill knew he would pay for the vote he had cast against legislation aimed at saving bees.
The state senator’s fan base was outraged, wondering how he could have voted against bees.
“I got creamed,” he said.
O’Neill, an Albuquerque Democrat, had voted no on a bill that would have restricted the use of a group of pesticides harmful to bees called neonicotinoids after fellow Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Roswell Republican, argued on the Senate floor they are less harmful to insects like lady bugs than other chemicals used in the agricultural industry.
The bill failed, enraging bee advocates.
O’Neill said Pirtle’s argument persuaded him, and he doesn’t regret his vote. But the reaction he faced made him consider the divisive nature of some of the issues he encounters in the state Capitol.
O’Neill has been frustrated for years by the lack of bipartisan cooperation in the Legislature. So the novelist and poet wrote a one-act play, Save the Bees, that chronicles the behind-the-scenes relationship between an older Democratic senator named Chapman — modeled after himself — and a younger Republican friend named Luke, who is based on Pirtle.
Teatro Paraguas will present staged readings of the play Friday, Saturday and Sunday featuring actors Geoffrey Pomeroy and Noah Segard. O’Neill and Pirtle will hold post-show discussions with the audience after each performance.
Set in an otherwise empty Senate chamber and replete with Greek chorus figures, the play centers on the question of whether the divide between the two men and their political parties can be bridged.
And if so, what price will they pay?
O’Neill said he and Pirtle have developed a friendship over the years founded on common likes — “basketball, partying and Fourth of July parades.”
But finding a way to narrow the gap between their political parties has been challenging at times.
In the play, the characters explore that idea by deliberately voting against their own parties on contentious issues such as abortion and gun rights — just to see what will happen.
It’s not pretty, but sometimes it’s pretty funny.
Chapman and Luke read some of the emails they have received from angry constituents after casting their unexpected votes.
O’Neill, a former attorney, said he wrote the play in the fall because he was “troubled by our lack of ability to work together and the national mood. It’s like a civil war, and it hurts me; it hurts me deep.”
The point of the play, he said, is to question whether lawmakers can leave their allegiance to a political party at the door as they enter the House or Senate chamber to discuss and vote on legislation.
Shortly after writing it, O’Neill showed the play to Pirtle during a legislative committee hearing. Pirtle said he read it throughout the hearing, silently laughing at many of the cynical, but accurate, jokes. He was “immediately vested” in the piece, he added.
While the lawmakers said they don’t face backlash from members of their own caucuses if they support a bill contrary to their party’s usual stance, they hear right away from members of the public and advocacy groups who consider them traitors.
Pirtle voiced a criticism he said he has often heard: “How dare you be friends with someone who is an enemy?”
Save the Bees captures the energy of that busy intersection where politics and theater meet. The House and Senate chambers in the Roundhouse can be seen as theater-in-the-round venues.
Both O’Neill and Pirtle said they are, in essence, actors.
“It’s halfway performing and halfway being a salesman,” Pirtle said. “You’re selling an idea to the people. You have to have the ability to stand up and speak in front of strangers. But it’s not like you are standing up and pretending to be someone else. Not in any way are you being fake.”
O’Neill said when they are on the Senate floor debating a bill, “We inhabit our roles. He inhabits his role as a [conservative] senator from Roswell, and I inhabit my role of a liberal senator from Albuquerque.”
Duchess Dale, who directs the staged reading of O’Neill’s play, said theater is about enlightening and educating audiences.
“The marriage here is to take the reality of politics — which has turned into way more drama in past years than it was in my generation — and use it as theater to educate.” If you go
Teatro Paraguas presents a staged reading of Democratic state Sen. Bill O’Neill’s play Save the Bees.
Where: Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $15 suggested donation. Visit www.teatroparaguasnm.org or call 505-424-1601 for reservations or more information. O’Neill, who is from Albuquerque, and Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, will take part in post-show discussions with the audience.