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Here Come the Republicans

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Fahrenheit 9/11: The Musical? Not yet, though it could happen if George W. Bush stays in the White House. Along with worldwide animosity and gargantuan deficits, Bush can be credited with inspiring the theater community as no president before him has. While the Republicans party inside their Manhattan "frozen zone" from Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, all around town there will be other convention activities which the GOPers are entirely welcome—but highly unlikely—to attend: theater performances created and/or timed to counter the Bush administration's invasion of New York.

(Producers have different tactics for "luring" an opposition audience: Convention delegates with ID can get in free to "I'm Gonna Kill the President!" A Federal Offense—everyone else pays $15—but Vital Theatre Company was charging $10 instead of the regular $8 to those with proof of Republican Party membership who came to see its Republican Convention Welcome Wagon Variety Show.)

How angry are NYC theater artists at George Bush? Well, for starters, check out the title of the first show mentioned above—a felonious sentiment that's also referenced in KtP, a play premiering in the UnConvention theater festival. And that Vital variety show? Its full title is "Make Nice"? My Ass! The Republican Convention Welcome Wagon Variety Show, a name inspired by convention spokesperson Ed Koch's ads urging New Yorkers to "make nice" with their Republican visitors. Then there are the two plays in the Fringe Festival, Apocalypse! Book One and Dementia Presidentia, that equate a Bush victory this year with the Apocalypse.

Politically motivated theater artists are, clearly, feeling feverish. The Republicans arrive in New York during the last weekend of the Fringe Festival, which features a healthy supply of anti-Bush works amid its 200-show lineup. While the GOP is in town, no fewer than four other theater festivals are taking aim at the party's leader. And the offensive won't cease once the Republicans depart: Among the openings slated for mid-September are Pugilist Specialist, a U.K. transfer about the Iraq war (produced by the Riot Group, whose previous work includes a play called Why I Want to Shoot Ronald Reagan), and Karen Finley's latest opus, George & Martha, in which George W. Bush—at times resembling the George of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—resumes cocaine use and conceals Osama bin Laden.

I'm thrilled that the Imagine Festival of Arts—running concurrently with the Republican Convention—is bringing back Mark Crispin Miller's Patriot Act: A Public Meditation for free performances Aug. 30-Sept. 1 (on a bill with an excerpt of Tony Kushner's work-in-progress Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy) at the New York Theatre Workshop, where it ran for a month earlier this summer. Patriot Act is like a stage version of Fahrenheit 9/11, only more scholarly—but no less entertaining. With a Woody Allen-esque delivery (minus the whining) and some nifty one-liners, Miller makes a case—point by point—that the Bush administration's conduct is antithetical to democratic, Christian, conservative, rational ideals. Whereas Michael Moore uses Bush's malaprops to get laughs, Miller analyzes them (explaining, for instance, that Bush famously mangled the maxim "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" because the very notion of saying "shame on me" tripped him up—he can't do contrition). In promotional material and the program, Miller, who's a professor of media studies, asserts his presentation "is not a work of theater," but between the humor, multimedia effects and performer's personality it's as theatrical as many other one-person shows.

After Patriot Act, the political show I've enjoyed most this summer is "I'm Gonna Kill the President!" A Federal Offense, which is running through Sept. 4 at...uh, I can't tell you. To see it, you make a reservation at 212-802-7446, then go to a designated spot on East 10th Street to be directed to the theater, via an intermediate place where you're videotaped avowing that you're not a law enforcement official. That's about all I can tell you, since the company requests secrecy to protect the "conspirators" (i.e., cast and crew) from possible prosecution—names and many biographical details are blacked out in the program—and not to ruin the surprises in the show. It's not revealing too much to mention the meta antics, rat-a-tat pacing, audience participation, deliberately hokey dialogue and gimmickry like people portraying props that make this a work of guerrilla theater, and I must note that "I'm Gonna Kill..." is one of the few recent plays that effectively meld political commentary into an engaging fictional story. It could be a more commercial enterprise if it reined in the pranks—perhaps not what the creators desire, but the show deserves a bigger audience (and more media exposure). And since it condemns greed, conformity and police-state tactics as much as it does George W. Bush in particular, it has a life beyond convention counterprogramming.

Playwright Herman Daniel Farrell III makes an earnest effort to create a politically tinged drama rather than a mere polemic in Rome, which closes at the Fringe Festival on Aug. 28. It has a fictional story of four people working the 2000 Florida vote recount who meet again—in circumstances not made entirely clear—on September 11th (and again thereafter). One couple's liberal, the other's conservative, so arguments both for and against the war and a whole bunch of other issues get aired, though the central conflict in the play is personal. As he did with his 2002 Fringe piece about Bill Clinton, Portrait of a President, Farrell presents multiple viewpoints in Rome and invents his own plot and characters instead of merely dramatizing real events—both of which make his play more ambitious than most other anti-Bush theater. But the characters' relationships are insufficiently developed—and at times unrealistic—and occasionally the strain of trying to infuse a fictional drama with political relevance shows.

While Rome carries a message about aggression versus compromise that could resonate outside an argument over George Bush, a number of current political shows don't aspire to any degree of timelessness. They're here, now, to dis George Bush. The Question W Revue, scheduled through Sept. 1 at the Duplex, is one such production: Its cast even sings that they "want this show to close" (it would be pointless with W out of office). Question W is for those who can't get enough Bush-bashing, as it doesn't say much new, it just says it to music. Criticism is presented via rewritten songs (a la Forbidden Broadway) plus a few comic interludes, which should be eliminated because the jokes are so flimsy. Much of the show rehashes the left's most common gripes about Bush—the war, gay marriage, his verbal gaffes; it's better toward the end, when the commentary is more pointed and the issues less shopworn. Good parody lyrics from this later part of the show: "The Beat Goes On" and "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey" become, respectively, "The Fear Goes On" ("bin Laden da-dee-dee...") and "Won't You Shut Up, Bill O'Reilly." Vitriol runs highest in the last number, "The Most Hated Man on Earth," which is not only an original song but also a more original idea, focusing on an under-expressed concern: that George W.'s policies have made him (and, therefore, his country) a global "hate magnet."

Vital Theatre also chose to take on the prez via a revue, the aforementioned "Make Nice"? My Ass! Welcome Wagon. Vital converted its black box theater into a cabaret for the weekly show, replacing some seats with tables and selling snacks and beverages to enjoy while you watch. Content and performers changed each week, and the effort was spirited if not polished. The night I saw it, there were mostly comic sketches and monologues—none especially clever, and too many of them targeting homophobia. "Make Nice"? had a terrific asset in Ron McClary, who performed his emcee duties (every week) with vaudevillian flair. Curiously, Vital scheduled the show only till August 26—right before the Republicans came to town.

Meanwhile, a show that had completed its run last spring returned just for the convention. Both of them actually, as the Flea Theater reopened A.R. Gurney's Mrs. Farnsworth as the Democratic Convention got under way and is continuing it until Sept. 4. This most high-profile of all current anti-Bush plays toys with the idea that Dubya's youthful indiscretions may have been more heinous than reported, and it has a character fume about the "hypocrisy, bribery and corruption" of the administration, but its ultimate target is not Bush but Gurney's favorite punchline: the Northeastern WASP. When Mr. Farnsworth denounces Bush for betraying his upbringing, he voices criticism that non-WASPs share—"He doesn't read...he hates to travel...[he's] putting on a ten-gallon hat and a fake Texas accent, and pretending he wasn't one"—though as The New York Times observed in a recent piece about political theater and film, that's the least of anyone's complaints about Bush.

The president receives even more benign treatment in one of the Fringe shows about him, The Passion of George W. Bush. According to this musical, which has its final performance on Aug. 29, George Bush wants to be kind, do good, help people. He doesn't necessarily want to be president—Dick Cheney puts the idea into his head by faking a visitation from Christ (having been told by Bush senior that he's unelectable, Cheney needs an alternate entree into the White House). Passion mocks Bush's dopiness and onetime heavy drinking, but portrays him as innocent of the lies and machinations instigated by Cheney et al; like Jesus, he's betrayed by his inner circle. This is one of those shows that are meaningful only in the here and now; still, it's a decent enough musical: Songs are well-integrated, even catchy at times, and in an innovative bit of storytelling, writers John Herin and Adam B. Mathias mix fictional/speculative scenes (like little Georgie falling out of bed) with real-life incidents ("Bring it on"; sitting cluelessly in a classroom on 9/11) while chronicling Bush's life within a parallel-to-Christ's-Passion framework. The Bush-Cheney duet at the end is an outstanding summation of how the administration's policies contradict the Christian morality they claim to espouse.

Judging from Passion and other shows in the Fringe, theater artists are especially alarmed by Bush's religious extremism. In Dementia Presidentia, the president character (named Arnold Bosch) dismisses the Billy Graham/Jerry Falwell stand-in, Rev. Billy Cantwell, as not pious enough and starts taking orders directly from Jesus, whom he meets in a cafeteria in his dreams. In Apocalypse! Book One, Jesus comes back to Earth to prevent Bush from further sullying his name—and Bush supporters promptly form a group called Christians Against Christ. Another recurring theme in the Fringe's anti-Bush theater is that anything is possible with such zealots in power: from missiles pointed at every American city (Dementia), to women prosecuted for having miscarriages (Patriot Acts), to the Four Horsemen—War, Famine, Pestilence, Death—saddling up for The End (Apocalypse!).

Of those three Fringe shows, Apocalypse! Book One is superior—a fast-paced burlesque by improv/sketch comedy performers in which Jesus decides to run for president, Famine is on Atkins, and Dick Cheney is played by a black actor. (Hmm, another recurring theme: Jeb Bush is played by a black man in The Passion of George W. Bush.) Dementia has a couple of funny lines but doesn't really seem to know where to go with its premise, and nothing in it matches the energy of Tom Walker's Jim Carrey-like lead performance. Patriot Acts is a well-intentioned compilation of skits and one-acts that illuminate our constitutional rights (and the dangers of losing them), but a predominantly serious tone keeps it from being as entertaining as it could be. Apocalypse! has performances Aug. 27-29, Dementia closes Aug. 28, and Patriot Acts' last show is the afternoon of the 27th. (Already finished its Fringe run: Hanging Chad, which criticized virtually everything the Bush administration has done but in the most untheatrical, incohesive way imaginable.)

As the Fringe winds down, several other festivals are keeping Bush-bashing center stage. Through Sept. 1 Ensemble Studio Theatre is holding a Whose Country Is It Anyway? festival, featuring such topically titled plays as Red State/Blue State, Quince and Kerry and The War Piece plus late-night "Creative Disobedience Cabarets." HERE is focusing its annual American Living Room series, running through Sept. 2, on theatrical "responses to our nation's current political climate." Plays in the UnConvention, Aug. 27-Sept. 11, include Jean Anouilh's Antigone and Elie Wiesel's The Trial of God, while a highlight of the Imagine Festival promises to be Voting for Godot, a new comedy in which two party functionaries await a progressive candidate. From Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, the new musical Dubya and the Gang of Seven gets a concert staging at Theater for the New City, which isn't charging admission for the event. Also due to open soon (at the American Theatre of Actors): King Macbush II, a satire subtitled A Shakespearean Tragedy of War, Greed and Strategerie.

 

Photo above and homepage graphic from The Question W Revue.

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From This Author Adrienne Onofri

Adrienne Onofri has been writing for BroadwayWorld since it was launched in 2003. She is a member of the Drama Desk and has moderated panels (read more...)

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