Sunday, November 23, 2008

Common Cents

The ghost of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, has hovered over this year's election for many reasons.  Lincoln was the first and -- until November 4, 2008 -- the only President to be elected from the State of Illinois.   President-elect Barack Obama has been modeling his cabinet after Lincoln's famed "team of rivals."  And, like it or not, many Americans have worried about the possibility of President Obama being assassinated while in office.

In its 1990 off-Broadway premiere, the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical Assassins explored the motivations of those who have attempted to murder American Presidents.  In the following scene Patrick Cassidy and Victor Garber sing about the legacy of John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln:

As most folks know, Lincoln was shot on Good Friday while attending a performance of Tom Taylor's farce, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theater.  The fact that Honest Abe might actually have been laughing at the very moment he was shot is part of what haunts and inspires The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks.   

The folks at Thick Description, which presented the West Coast premiere of The America Play back in 1994, are now reviving it in their intimate theater on Potrero Hill.  An old business axiom suggests that, when handed a lemon, one should try to make lemonade.   As a result, deference is due to Sondheim, Weidman, and Parks for using the tragedy of a President's assassination to create a controversial piece of theater.  

The ghost of Abraham Lincoln dominates the stage in this revival, with Rhonnie Washington once again taking on the role of The Foundling Father, a "digger" who became famous for his impersonations of Abraham Lincoln and who earned a living by allowing anyone who paid a penny to pick up an (unloaded) gun and reenact the moment when Lincoln was shot.  

Rhonnie Washington and Daniel Westley Skillman
 (Photo by Rick Martin)

An added bonus?  

For the price of a penny, ordinary people get to shoot the man whose face appears on the penny. The gimmick takes on a life of its own for the actor/digger, evolving into a popular attraction which titillates women as well as men.  

Can it titillate a modern audience as well? I'm not so sure.  

Under Tony Kelly's direction Rhonnie Washington, Cathleen Riddley (Lucy) and Brian Freeman (Brazil) try to bring as much music to the language carefully molded by Parks to shape a sense of absurd symbolism, ridiculous rituals and bloated beliefs that have grown to acquire deep personal meaning -- even if there is little truth to back them up. Throughout the play's 95 minutes I found myself wondering if I was watching a black version of Samuel Beckett's Happy Days (which the famous London drama critic Kenneth Tynan described as "a metaphor extended beyond its capacity").

Cathleen Riddley and Brian Freeman (Photo by Rick Martin)

While much of this play's appeal escapes me, I truly did love Rick Martin's unit set, a solidly wooden affair that one can actually smell from the theater's first row of seats.  Described by the playwright as "A great hole.  In the middle of nowhere.  The hole is an exact replica of the Great Hole of History," it serves its purpose well in framing a black hole of American theatre.

* * * * * * *

If you watch carefully, you'll see Abraham Lincoln's face peering down on the bizarre proceedings in this 1999 political skit from MadTV:

I mention this because, in the waning days of the Bush administration, I went to see Oliver Stone's W., a movie which is astonishing for its total inability to make the viewer care about any of the main characters or sycophants who populate the screen.  A sad reflection on what Americans have endured during the past eight years, W. makes one feel as if, in trying to find the vampire responsible for sucking the blood out of America's economy and moral standing in the world, one made the mistake of looking in a mirror in hopes of finding the villain.  Any hope of trying to find a "there there" only insults the memory of Gertrude Stein.

Though we had plenty of warnings about how calamitous a Bush Presidency might be, the proof has been far worse than any toxic pudding imaginable.  Curiously, the musical choices made by Oliver Stone for his movie included the use of very simple, hummable songs (The Yellow Rose of Texas, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and The Ballad of Robin Hood) played softly and sweetly, with a child-like innocence that could easily appeal to any born-again Christian. These familiar, soothing melodies underscore the machination, abrogation, alienation, intoxication, and utter lack of  introspection and sophistication of the 43rd President of the United States.

As with every other job he has held, George W. Bush has laid waste to the United States of America.  When historians try to analyze the effect of his Presidency on the culture, they may well discover that in addition to being the worst President this country has ever experienced, he was its greatest buffoon.

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