Thursday, December 4, 2014

With Eyes Firmly Fixed On Political Targets

Few people would deny that politics is highly theatrical. Whether in film (The Candidate, All The President's Men, Lincoln) or onstage (The Best Man, Frost/Nixon, All The Way), conflict is easily found and ripe for dramatization. In 1959, when Fiorello! took Broadway by storm, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Jerome Weidman, George Abbott, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick featured a delightful song entitled "Politics and Poker."

Fiorello! (which starred Tom Bosley as New York City's beloved Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia) gently mocked the corrupt dynamics of New York's Tammany Hall. Some 42 years later, Urinetown examined political corruption from a decidedly more caustic perspective. In his recent article in The New York Times entitled "Is Our Art Equal To The Challenges of Our Times?A.O. Scott wrote:
"Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth. Some of my previous Cross Cuts columns have tried to plot the contemporary intersections of culture, class, work and money. I want to know more about the political economy of art at the present moment, to think about how artists are affected by changes in the distribution of wealth and the definition of work, and about how their work addresses these changes."
Melissa Hillman (the Artistic Director of Impact Theatre who writes the Bitter Gertrude blog) has taken the bull by the horns in her must-read article entitled "The Most Important Thing in Theatre You’re Not Talking About." Bay area audiences recently witnessed the world premieres of three plays (two by the talented Lauren Gunderson) which deal with these precise issues:

In November, two productions new to the Bay area took aim at the ruthlessness and vacuous vanity of American politics. One delivered in spades; the other huffed and puffed but most assuredly did not blow the house down.

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How dark and biting do you like your black comedy? How rude and in-your-face do you like your political satire? If, like me, you adore Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and enjoy seeing sacred cows blown to smithereens, you will fall head over heels in love with Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's brutal, brilliant, and hilariously horrific political cartoon entitled The Totalitarians. It's got a small cast, to be sure, but what a goofy set of manipulative and misguided characters!

Poster art for The Totalitarians

Let's start with 20-year-old Ben (Andrew Humann), an angry, paranoid would-be American revolutionary who speaks in garbled tones while delivering his diatribes from behind a ski mask. Ben is not above asking his doctor to finger fuck him (as if checking for colonic polyps) so that the government agents he imagines to be monitoring their conversation via hidden cameras will think this was a routine rectal examination. Ben's insistence on continuing the conversation later that night in a public park close to a popular cruising spot for gay men confuses his seemingly compassionate physician (who still can't bring himself to tell the young man that he is dying from a rapidly-spreading cancer).

Jeffrey (Liam Vincent) gives Ben (Andrew Humann) a rectal
examination during The Totalitarians (Photo by Mark Leialoha)

Ben's doctor (Liam Vincent) is stuck in a sexually stale marriage. His wife (a political speechwriter and campaign manager) keeps hoping to land the perfect client while gingerly trying to ignore Jeffrey's well-intentioned entreaties about having children. With Francine hell-bent on a make-it or break-it approach to achieving her career goals, Jeffrey easily falls prey to the youthful ardor of Ben's political fanaticism coupled with his patient's obvious sex appeal and precarious medical condition. Even when Ben tightly grips Jeffrey's balls in order to make him cooperate with subversive plans to take the Nebraska state government by storm, in times of great stress Jeffrey still dreams about going someplace far, far away (like, maybe, Iowa).

Jeffrey (Liam Vincent) and his wife, Francine (Alexis Lezin),
 in a scene from The Totalitarians (Photo by Mark Leialoha)

Jeffrey's wife, Francine (Alexis Lezin), is a cunning linguist who knows how to write effective speeches that include powerful political buzzwords. But she needs to find a client who can win an election and gain her the kind of national attention which would lead to work on bigger campaigns. When Francine encounters an aspiring, amoral, right-wing egomaniac who fits the bill, she is torn between being sickened by the woman's reckless ruthlessness and blazing stupidity while simultaneously being swept off her feet by her new client's overbearing personality.

Penny (Jamie Jones) shows Francine (Alexis Lezin) who's
really the boss in The Totalitarians (Photo by Mark Leialoha)

Finally, there is the candidate herself: Former roller derby queen Penelope Easter has the trigger finger and tendency toward malapropisms (“Sometimes things just come in my mouth wrong") that gave Sarah Palin her renowned gravitas; as well as the calculating, cold-hearted bloodthirstiness of Eleanor Iselin (from The Manchurian Candidate) combined with the smug stupidity of Michele Bachmann experiencing roid rage. A sexual predator who wastes no time getting Francine into bed for some "licky licky," Penny has always assumed that her husband is gay (she once told him that he's allowed to suck two cocks a month if that's what it takes to keep their marriage intact). She will loudly say whatever words Francine puts into her politically hungry hands as long as they can propel her into political office. Next to Penelope Easter, Godzilla seems like a cuddly, household pet.

Nachtrieb's play was commissioned by the National New Play Network (NNPN) through the Full Stage/USA Program at New Dramatists with a lead grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Its rolling world premiere productions have allowed Penny to terrorize audiences at the Southern Rep in New Orleans and the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, D.C. before arriving at Z Space in San Francisco (where Nachtreib is a resident playwright).

Anyone who complains that nobody is writing good roles for mature women these days needs to get acquainted with Nachtreib's Penelope Easter (who makes Gypsy Rose Lee's mother seem like a pussycat). Deliciously directed by Kenneth Prestininzi, Jamie Jones (a comic powerhouse of an actor) transforms Penny into a strident version of Ann Miller's evil twin (who wouldn't hesitate to use her big hair and bow and arrow to bring people around to her way of thinking). Her Penny has just enough "truthiness" in her heart to make her capable of doing absolutely anything -- whether that means forcing Francine to choose between her husband and her client or finding a way to make sure her opponent slits his wrists at just the right moment).

Ben (Andrew Humann0 has ways of persuading Jeffrey
(Liam Vincent) to cooperate in The Totalitarians
(Photo by Mark Leialoha)

Performances of The Totalitarians continue at Z Space Below through December 14 (click here to order tickets). Consider Nachtreib's play the perfect antidote for anyone who's sick and tired of all that Victorian era optimism from Charles Dickens! Here's the trailer:

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I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Kathleen Turner's new one-woman show (Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins) which is now onstage at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Written by twin journalists Margaret and Allison Engel, who thought about bringing the wit and wisdom of Molly Ivins to the stage soon after the beloved liberal columnist's untimely death from breast cancer on January 31, 2007 at the age of 62, the show suffers from one huge, inescapable handicap. As the originator of her thoughts, a talented writer, and a gifted storyteller, Molly Ivins did a much better job of being Molly Ivins (in print and on television) than Kathleen Turner does onstage.

Directed by David Esbjornson, Turner's 70-minute monologue debuted at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2010 and was seen in 2012 by audiences at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Parts of the Engel sisters' effort rely on a clumsy stage gimmick. Michael Barrett Austin has a series of silent walk-ons in which he delivers messages to Ivins on the day she started out to write a piece about her father and, after much procrastination, received word that "The General" had died that day.

The strange thing about writers is that they get to take time polishing their words until they're satisfied with the rhythm and flow of their writing. Although Ivins made frequent appearances as a speaker, whenever her quick wit wasn't delivering a fresh zinger to the crowd, she could rely on some well-used lines to keep the laughter going. However, because Red Hot Patriot is a live performance (and she is not speaking into a microphone), Turner must work harder to "sell" her lines to audiences.

Kathleen Turner stars as Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot: 
The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

As a result, there is a subtle change in the character's personality. Where Ivins managed to be quite sardonic in her laid-back style of delivery, Turner is a bit more aggressive. Where Ivins could gently lead readers and audiences to the brink of a puddle before letting them stumble forward and splash about, Turner's delivery makes one feel like there was a need to push people into the puddle.

When a politician's personality has been firmly imprinted on the public's mind, it's easy for viewers to recognize personal tics and weaknesses (think of how comedians like Will Ferrell and Jon Stewart used to imitate George W. Bush). It doesn't work quite the same way with writers who are not necessarily actors.

Kathleen Turner stars as Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot: 
The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins  (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Performances of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins continue at Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre through January 11, 2015 (click here to order tickets). However, thanks to the archival treasures stored on YouTube, it's possible to spend an hour with Molly Ivins and listen to her comments as she spoke to students at Tulane University on April 13, 2004. Her insights into campaign financing, the Patriot Act, the Internet, and voting rights are every bit as vital today as they were ten years ago. As the marketing experts for Coca-Cola used to claim: "It's The Real Thing."

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