Tuesday, November 09, 2010
Only The President Can Make the Decision to Drop The F-Bomb
By Josh R
Now that the madness of Midterm Elections has been put safely in the rear view mirror — leaving grotesques like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell to crawl back into the musty volume of Brothers Grimm fairy tales from whence they slithered forth — it may be time for us to reflect on the absurd, frequently arcane manner in which individuals with a yen for power are able to capture the public imagination, and the equally bizarre way in which the love of the masses can be won and lost in the blink of an eye. Americans are notoriously fickle when it comes to hero worship — we fall in and out of love with our political crushes at a rate of such alarming rapidity as to make the gateway to our collective affections seem like the revolving door at an airport terminal. Part of the problem is that very few voters take the time or the trouble to understand the issues involved before bestowing their allegiance — or taking it away. A further complication arises from the fact that, emotionally speaking, most of us have never left high school. That dreamy varsity quarterback on whose padded shoulders the sun rises and sets on Monday can be persona non grata by Tuesday if he fumbles the ball during the big game (and once the cheerleaders catch sight of that cute new transfer student, all bets are off). It’s easy to have a short attention span — especially if one isn’t really paying attention.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the new show by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman currently playing at The Bernard Jacobs Theatre, is probably the rudest musical ever written about American politics. It’s very funny, unabashedly sophomoric and much of it is just in deliriously bad taste. It also — and here is the true surprise — provides revealing insight into the uneasy, capricious relationship between the elected and the electorate, as well as an infinitely truer, more complex evocation of the current political landscape than one could glean from listening to the talking heads on cable news channels (if you want to know what happened at the polls last week, go to MSNBC — if you want to know WHY it happened, go to The Jacobs.) Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson suggests nothing so much as what might occur if the rowdiest kids at a school for troubled teens were told to put on a pageant, depicting historical events and examining their causation, as a class assignment. Instead of taking the assignment seriously — trying to bag an A grade with safe, bland history out of the textbook, with costumes, props and speech appropriate to the period — imagine if these oversexed, potty-mouthed delinquents seized upon it as an opportunity to horrify the teacher and gain expulsion…in the process, fashioning something that, while in no way a model of historical veracity, hit the nail right on the head in terms of exposing the unsettling truths behind the facts. Above all, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, with it’s blaring emo-rock score, vulgar sight gags and dirty-minded spirit of anarchy, wants its audience to have a good time — but that isn’t the full extent of its ambitions. Along the way, it holds an uncomfortable mirror up to the manner in which leaders are born, canonized and subsequently blowtorched, and exposes with uncanny exactitude why we, the people, do what we do, and what we’re doing to our country and ourselves in the process.
A comprehensive, entirely accurate history of Andrew Jackson’s embattled presidency is not what’s on the menu; however, the outline Timbers and Friedman provide addresses most of the major points and features of his controversial tenure (admittedly, in a rather tongue-in-cheek way). Having come from humble, hardscrabble beginnings on the rough plains of Tennessee, he rose to prominence on the field of battle and ascended to power by virtue of being a political outsider. He promoted his populist philosophy as the means by which the people could wrest their government back from an out-of-touch, long-ensconced political establishment; it also didn’t hurt that he was perceived as a big-time action hero, and kind of a hottie. His popularity vanished as he was unable to deliver on many of his campaign promises, held in check by a Congress that prevented him from exercising the autonomy to effect the sweeping reforms he desired. His policy of Indian removal and relocation had a decimating effect on the Native American population, something which became (certainly to his chagrin and possibly to his regret) a large part of his legacy. Whether or not he truly had the best interests of the people at heart, or was a would-be demagogue guided more by ego, bloodthirsty machismo, and political grudges than anything else, remains a subject of historical debate. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
If this seems like the stuff of a dull, dry history lesson, it’s clear you’re in for nothing of the kind the minute you walk into the Bernard Jacobs Theatre; the space has been rendered completely unrecognizable by the ingenious, more than slightly perverse sensibility of Donyale Werle’s scenic design. Calling it a stage set would be inaccurate, as it extends well beyond the stage; the entire auditorium has been transformed into a kind of enormous, haphazardly maintained frontier junk shop. The pillars holding up the mezzanine are wrapped in animal pelts, strings of Christmas lights are draped over everything that will stand still, mounted animal heads are fastened above the bar, and piles of broken down chandeliers, riffles, assorted curios and brick-a-brack — the detritus of centuries — spills out from the side boxes and the margins of the seating area. The walls are adorned with portraits of notable American luminaries (everyone from George Washington to Hugh Hefner), and the life-size carcass of a dead horse has been suspended from the ceiling, directly over the orchestra. It’s as if stoners had raided The Smithsonian, fashioned their own, unkempt museum from the plunder while supplementing it with whatever they found in their own garages.
This tricked-out environment of chaos and clutter is the perfect setting for a production that doesn’t really play by the traditional rules — despite the presence of a narrator, an enthusiastic middle-age history buff (Kristine Nielsen), who scoots happily around the stage in her motorized wheelchair dispensing trivia, until the title character tires of her nattering and shoots her unceremoniously in the neck. The opening number, “Populism, Yea, Yea” — which somehow manages to seem both bouncy and grungy at the same time — sets the tone for a show that is nothing if not irreverent, regarding leaders as Dionysian rock stars and the people who buy into them as besotted fans. Jackson is played, in a galvanizing star turn by Benjamin Walker, as a smirking brute in tight leather pants and black eyeliner who starts coming on to the audience the minute he hits the stage (every night, one giggling female audience member is asked if she wants to review his “stimulus package”). He’s like Johnny Rotten trapped in the body of a teen idol — albeit of the slightly androgynous hipster variety — and the actor expertly contrasts the brash, seductive bravado of a charismatic bad boy born to inspire rock-star worship, with the petulant, conflicted arrogance of an overachiever who comes to realize he’s bitten off more than he can chew.
The particulars of his journey unfold in a style that could best be described as historical burlesque — various events are presented in broad, sketch-comedy style, with winking asides to the audience and in completely anachronistic fashion (the history may be specific to the 19th century, but the world of the show is decidedly not). When Andrew meets future bride Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez), a spaced-out tootsie dressed like a Von Trapp Family singer reimagined as a cocktail waitress, they embark on a comically orgiastic makeout session which ivolves dousing, then smearing each other with stage blood; a troubadour comments in song that the blood is a metaphor for love, and shouldn’t be taken as real. Some critics have carped that the show’s over-the-top, comic-book approach to characterization is taken too far; Lucan Near-Verbrugghe’s depiction of Martin Van Buren as a prancing homosexual, making goo-goo eyes at Jackson from over his Elizabethan ruff while munching lasciviously on a Twinkie, is borderline offensive; personally, I find it hard take offense at anything in a show so blissfully unencumbered by anything even remotely resembling good taste that, if viewed without a sense of humor, could be considered objectionable in its entirety. Hell, there's even a joke in there about Susan Sontag's death from cancer — this is not a show that's trying to be culturally sensitive, nor, given its aims, should it be attempting to.
Needless to say, nothing is depicted in a remotely realistic fashion; and yet, when the show has something to say about American political culture — whether it’s exposing its follies or deconstructing the myths around which it’s taken shape — Timbers and Friedman take aim, hitting their targets with pinpoint accuracy. The most telling example occurs when a White House tour group makes a stop at the Oval Office. Up to this point, Jackson has enjoyed these brief, inconsequential visits from his adoring fans; he’ll take a break from tossing around the football with his cronies to show his guests how cool it is that his in-house groupies — a pair of curvy pompom girls who sit around chewing juicy fruit and reading teenybopper rags when not on party duty — will make out on his command. At the moment of this particular visit, the angry, beleaguered Jackson has reached the nadir of his Presidency; he’s grown weary of trying to crack the unsolvable riddle of national problems that have no real solutions, remains at loggerheads with a Congress that refuses to acknowledge his supremacy and bend to his will, and is bewildered by the manner in which his fanbase has so abruptly turned against him. He asks a tourist whether he should allow the Indians to remain in Tennessee, or launch military action to force them to leave. The citizen replies “Well, I don’t think you should force them out. But you can’t let them stay in Tennessee.” When the frustrated Jackson points out that the two things are mutually exclusive, and that the tourist has only rephrased the problem instead of offering a real opinion as to the solution, the latter doesn’t understand the point. The impossible relationship between The President and The People observes no law of logic — we expect our leaders to wave their magic wands and fix all the nation’s woes, without thinking too long and hard about what it is we’re asking them to do, and why it isn’t always doable (frankly, the leaders themselves don’t always think about it either). When the fantasy balloon pops, the hopes and dreams we’ve pinned to our heroes give way to cynicism and impatience. Do the voters of 2010 have any concept of why, given the nature of this untenable, paralyzing straitjacket of a construct called Democracy, leaders are unable to lead? We say “this is what we want,” without having the slightest clue of how to make it happen — or how we would act in a leader’s place, given the electorate’s need for instant gratification and inability to face the fact that change can’t happen quickly and in the absence of sacrifice (sacrifice is fine, say the people, as long as we’re not the ones who have to make it.) When Walker rips out “The Saddest Songs” — an acid-laced unleashing of the frustrations, delusions and resentments that attend any hero’s fall from his pedestal — it’s not just as an expression of defiance; it’s also a bewildered cry from the heart, and an acknowledgement of his own disappointment in The People, who hold their leaders responsible for everything but take on no responsibility themselves.
It’s this kind of biting, incisive commentary — contained, as improbably as it may seem, within the smutty, jokey context of a crude rock 'n' roll burlesque show — that makes Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson such a satisfying, invigorating work of theater. The rock musical has made tremendous strides in recent years, and this latest entrant, while not perfect in every respect (when you flirt with this shamelessly with tastelessness, a few things are bound to leave a bad taste), is a much more ambitious, subversive work than either Spring Awakening or American Idiot. While it doesn’t quite have the emotional acuity of the former, nor the jolting, pulsating energy of the latter, Bloody Bloody is more fully realized and challenging than either of those great shows, and it’s the first of the three to couple a great rock score with an equally strong libretto (while it didn’t really need one, Idiot had no book to speak of, and Awakening's creaked along the road like a rusty Model T). Having seen the show during its off-Broadway engagement at The Public Theatre last spring, I was given to wonder how this wacky, raunchy, ultimately very smart little gem would fare in the move uptown — it seemed, at the time, a bit too hip to retain its potency in a stately old Broadway house before a mainstream audience. As it turns out, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson hasn’t merely made a smooth transition between venues. Tasteless jokes and thinking cap firmly in place, it’s looking even better than it did before...while talking just as filthy.