Fringe Comedy: The Miss Education of Jenna Bush and Weddings of Mass Destruction
Jenna Bush just can't get a break. A favorite target of mockery from the beginnings of her father's campaign for the White House, she has earned a reputation as a dizty party girl, and no attempts to change this notoriety have worked. And now, at the Fringe, Melissa Rauch, Tom Wojtunik and Winston Beigel have taken Miss Bush's reckless reputation to an extreme in The Miss Education of Jenna Bush, a one-woman show that gleefully mocks the entire Bush family, and Republicans in general.
There isn't much of a plot to the piece, which lands somewhere in between stand-up comedy and performance art. The fictional Miss Bush, as played by Ms. Rauch, rambles on about her reputation, racism (while dining with Condoleeza Rice and any other black people her mother can find in her social circle, Jenna wonders aloud if they will all be eating collard greens and watermelon), politics (she came up with the "No Child Left Behind" policy after watching Home Alone), and just about everything else. Predictably, it's not a terribly flattering portrait. It is, however, quite cute, and quite a few laughs are earned by Ms. Rauch's wide-eyed dizziness. There are even genuine moments of poignancy as young Miss Bush struggles to grow up and find her own identity apart from her family.
The problem with the play is that, cute though it may be, it's rarely clever a fatal weakness in political satire. Much of the humor comes from Jenna's malapropisms (has the President yet overtaken Mrs. Malaprop in grammatical errors?) and Miss Bush's reputation as a stereotypical ignorant Southern party girl. Regardless of the debatable accuracy of the reputation or the stereotype in general, the cliché has worn rather thin, and there is a gold mine of other Bush-related material on which Ms. Rauch could base her comedy. It is quite disappointing that she would rely on the tired dumb-Southerner jokes rather than using any of the many more original targets for her slings and arrows.
As a performer, Ms. Rauch shows quick wit and very strong comic timing; her training as a stand-up comedienne has clearly paid off. She was even able to remain in character and cheerfully overcome poorly managed sound cues and errant mobile phones from the audience, a true testament to her quick thinking and improvisational skills. Caitlin McCleery's set is appropriately cluttered and disorganized, nicely setting up much of the character for us before Ms. Rauch even enters. The adolescent nature of the living room gradually picks up more grown-up props and begins to look like an adult's home rather than a child's rec room, a nice commentary on the emotional growth of the titular anti-heroine.
Weddings of Mass Destruction
My goodness, gay marriage is certainly a common theme to this year's Fringe. After being prominently featured in both The Day The World Went QUEER! and Fleet Week, the issue, and everything that surrounds it, goes front and center in Weddings of Mass Destruction, a gay-themed sketch comedy show from Chicago's GayCo productions.
Such a show is long overdue, of course. As GayCo's mission statement says in big, bold letters, we need comedy where homosexuality is the set-up rather than the punch line. Instead of basing their humor on stereotypes and clichés, GayCo celebrates the silliness and absurdities inherent to gay and lesbian life, and even to the basic human condition. It's a refreshing, and very welcome, change from the ordinary conventions of sketch comedy.
Problem is, no matter what the theme of the comedy is, it still needs to be funny, and that's where this show falters. There is some clever wordplay, some near-balletic pantomime, and a lovely ode to Alyssa Milano, but little of the humor has the quick wit or bite that the best comedy features. In general, the humor is gentle and mild, and its very inoffensiveness makes it lamentably forgettable.
There is one moment of absolute genius, however, in which a group of effeminate queens who might represent anyone from Queer Eye's Fab Five to Will Truman put on "pinkface" and perform a gay minstrel show. Much as the black minstrel shows of old assured white audiences that they had nothing to fear from the subservient African-Americans, this sendup of pop culture homos assures straight audiences that gay people are completely harmless, and certainly don't want any civil rights. ("Lawsy, I don't know nuthin' 'bout 'doptin' no babies!") When left alone, however, the "Auntie Toms" quietly and covertly sing a defiant round of Jerry Herman's "I Am What I Am." It's a brilliant, razor-sharp moment, and it makes the overall weakness of the rest of the comedy that much more tragic. If the rest of the sketches had this much wit, the show would be excellent.