Fringe Politics

In the year 2004, theater is reclaiming its role in stirring the pot

This week, the troops, on both sides, descend for the Republican National Convention, an insidious extravaganza on the inside and, we must hope, improvisational, but satisfying, guerilla performance on the streets.

The real-life tragicomedy of the RNC is a fitting context for the closing days of the York International Fringe Festival, where more than at any time in its eight years, the underlying assertion is that art is political—and solidly on the left.

“Art is political” is not a new idea, but in the current climate, it’s a vital point to remember.

Inherent in art is the potential for dissent expressed in ways that impact more deeply than political rhetoric. As the culture wars of the Reagan era revealed, art can be both dangerous to and engendered by conservative political power. There is, in fact, an ironically symbiotic relationship between political conservatism and leftist political art—in rabidly Republican times, radical dissent heats up in art, and it cools under liberalism.

Political art is booming in the U.S. today, particularly in the cinema where “Fahrenheit 9/11”’s Michael Moore leads the pack of celluloid lefties, and on the Internet where legions of digital artists post anti-Bush infotainment for the virtual masses.

No, “art is political” is not a revelation. But the Fringe Festival is not just art—it’s theater. And of all of this country’s cultural institutions, the Broadway-diluted American stage—the site of Frank Wildhorn goth romps, Andrew Lloyd Weber historical revisionism and revivals both bloated and anemic—might be the most resistant to an art of resistance. Still, the American theater may just be starting to smell of politics as well as grease paint.

Witness this year’s affably leftist Tony winner “Avenue Q,” the revival of Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” the well-received premiere of “Omnium Gatherum” and the work of the gay community’s own Tony Kushner.

And then there’s the Fringe itself. Innumerable shows at this year’s Fringe engage the current troubling administration, from “9/11—The Book of Job” to “Dementia Presidentia,” “Hanging Chad,” “John Walker: the Musical” and “The Passion of George W. Bush.” Indeed, if the Fringe is any indication, the avant-garde political blood is just beginning to boil. I checked out a few of the more topical Fringe offerings in order to take the political temperature of new American theater and to gauge its effectiveness at the art of dissent.

Given the born-again beliefs of the 43rd president, it’s not surprising that Jesus rears his thorny-crowned head in several productions. “Apocalypse!—Book One” is an interlinked series of comedic sketches in which Jesus, an industrial carpenter from a key swing state, runs for president because, under Dubya, “things have gone to shit.” The show is the work of “etc…,” an energetic group whose mission is to present “challenging political humor and incisive social commentary” in these days “when civil liberties are under attack, the media is complacent and mainstream comedy is lifeless.”

If “Apocalypse!” doesn’t quite have the depth to “smack the audience upside the head” as “etc…” intends, it does deliver some funny political parody and existential wit. And it takes no prisoners. From the plausible irony of Pat Robertson founding Christians Against Christ to support Bush’s re-election to Dick Cheney’s assertion that Jesus is the head of Hamas because they’re both from Palestine to actor Gene Perelson’s expert impersonation of the linguistically challenged W himself, the right is “etc…”’s primary target, but the entire mainstream is skewered. Democratic pundit Thomas Stephens and Republican pundit Stephen Thomas “vehemently disagree” with each other, but their assertions are exactly the same.

Even Jesus gets his licks, as the media foments Footwashergate after the prodigal “foot fetishist” admits to letting Mary Magdalene wash his feet.

Interwoven with Jesus’ campaign, are the misadventures of War, Famine, Pestilence and Death, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who, backed by the war profiteering investment firm, The Carlysle Group, bring on Armageddon. The joke here is that Jesus’ campaign is his Second Coming and George W. Bush is the anti-Christ. It’s silly, provocative fun, and sometimes it’s even profound, as when War’s therapist, noting that War is at war with War, suggests he find peace with himself.

Unfortunately, the Four Horsemen are too often vehicles for gross-out humor that undercuts the parody. Death can’t stop detailing disgusting acts of violence. Pestilence beats Serena Williams when the tennis star slips in her own bile. War spews invective at his therapist for no apparent theatrical reason. Only Famine is really funny. As played by Gene Perelman, he’s a nelly diet freak bloated on Atkins who muses over whether to get shin implants.

In the end, there’s no real message to “Apocalypse!—Book One.” Armaggedon happens. George Bush is re-elected. End of play. If political art’s purpose is to give us an inkling of a way toward a better world, then I’m waiting for “Apocalypse—Book Two!” to fulfill the promise.

“Apocalypse!—Book One” will be performed Friday, August 27 at 5 p.m., Saturday, August 28 at 10:15 p.m. and Sunday, August 29 at noon, at the Puffin Room, 435 Broome Street between Broadway and Crosby Street.

A very different take on the Bush presidency was penned by noted playwright Herman Daniel Farrell III, son of Democratic state party chair Denny Farrell. As the progeny of a pol, Farrell has made a career of presenting an insider’s take on our nations’ governance, from his critically acclaimed “Bedfellows” based on his father’s backroom experiences, to the 2002 FringeNYC Playwrighting Award winner, “Portrait of a President” about Bill Clinton, to the current “Rome”.

“Rome” follows two wonky couples from the 2000 Florida recount through 9/11 to the eve of the war in Iraq as they argue politics, engage in infidelity and become embroiled in a custody battle that parallels current and past historical events. The play attempts to chronicle, in Farrell’s words, “the great divide in our nation between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, relativists and absolutists.” The couples exist on either side of the divide. Whit (Derek Lucci) and Julia (Laura Marks) believe in George W. Bush and all he represents. Marcus (Joseph Uria) and Jessie (Alice Haining) are for Gore and liberalism.

Underlying the action is the idea that Bush’s presidency, like the reign of Julius Caesar, has turned the United States from a republic into an empire. The characters, who argue endlessly over all things political, argue about Rome as well. Whit maintains that Rome fell over the moral decay of the citizenry. Marcus blames immoral leaders. Julia says it was foreign invaders, and Jessie argues that Rome’s downfall was inherent in its flawed ideals as depicted in a brutal origin myth.

In other words, the characters state archetypal opinions: conservative ideology versus liberal pragmatism versus conservative pragmatism versus liberal ideology. It’s easy to see how the ideologues, Whit and Jessie, are attracted to each other from across the divide, as are the pragmatists Marcus and Julia, and that’s a tidy premise for what is essential a classical drama in contemporary costume.

At times it’s riveting stuff. But the play is intensely verbal, and its pedantry grows wearisome. Farrell could do with some judicious editing, less intellect and more plain, messy human interaction. Sometimes the political wrangling is favored over filling in plot holes. Sometimes the dialogue sounds like “blah blah blah.” But the play is wonderfully acted, the performers spitting out reams of verbiage with convincing electricity. They’re stereotypes, but even at their most archetypal, their humanness seeps out. And Farrell’s studious exposition of political and theatrical history announces the play’s seriousness and adds weight to its message. For, unlike “Apocalypse!”, “Rome” has a message, of acceptance and reconciliation, even where differences seem insurmountable.

The remaining performance of “Rome” is Saturday, August 28 at 5:30 p.m, at Linhart Theatre at 440 Studios, 440 Lafayette at Astor Place.

The message of “Rome”—that we can agree to disagree, that pluralism is the basis of a free society notion is the very backbone of democracy, a notion that makes the ending of The Urban Rock Project’s “Patriot Acts: The Constitution Project” all that much more ambiguous and dissatisfying. The work presents a series of skits ostensibly about the Bill of Rights. Its title would lead one to presume that the skits would directly address the Patriot Act and its subversion of the liberties inscribed in the Bill of Rights. Although “Patriot Acts” addresses these liberties, some skits confuse the issues by couching them in personal, rather than political, dramas. The skit “Mrs. Miller” deals with the right to privacy, but the conflict is between a wife and her husband who has read her personal, sexually illicit e-mails. In this case, the personal really is not political, as a government that has annihilated the right to privacy in the name of the war on terror is nowhere implicated.

Other skits are more to the point, such as the brilliant “The Third Amendment.” A soldier knocks on an imaginary door. When an old woman opens it, he demands to be housed for the night. She says she prefers not to let him in, but he insists. She tells him to wait a minute, returns with the Constitution and asks him to read it. He reads the third amendment out loud: “No soldier shall in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

“They never told us that,” the soldier says in shock. He turns and leaves, and the audience goes wild. The skit works because, in all its brevity, it illustrates how the Constitution protects, against the threat of force, against powerful institutions and their representatives, against the government itself, an individual’s right to liberty and self-determination. By recourse to the Constitution, the little old lady beats the soldier and, by extension, the entire army. In the time of an unpopular war, the skit resonates.

But, ultimately, “Patriot Acts” fails to compel. Its final skit is a lengthy headline on the national failure to extend equal rights to gays and lesbians. The young lover of a successful novelist rendered brain-dead in a car accident finds out that he has no rights to visitation, to determination of the lover’s fate, to the lover’s estate, to anything really against the claims of his lover’s estranged, hyper-religious, bigoted mother. The skit is shrill and unimaginative. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

We need more from theater than a naturalistic representation of what already is; we need a way out. We need complexities, subtleties, visions, solutions, which is why the culmination of “Patriot Acts” is so dissatisfying, because it seems to offer a solution, but the message is problematic. The young man who has lost his lover begins a speech about the denial of his rights. Then, one by one, characters from all the skits appear to speak their minds as well. Amid the noise, the young, African American female character who introduced the evening to us returns to the stage, and as she touches each character, they break from speech into a hum. Eventually, all the characters are humming in unison, and the evening ends.

What is the meaning of this ending? One might say it’s an assertion of unity over disunity. But, in my view, the humming is too close to a silencing of the ugly-beautiful cacophony of democracy, in which everyone speaks up and we somehow create a nation from a diversity of voices. This is why the Patriot Act is so dangerous—it squelches our very first Constitutional right, the freedom of speech.

In this very real, very frightening political climate, artistic endeavors like the Fringe Festival are absolutely necessary. It might be that if it weren’t for the RNC, the Fringe wouldn’t have its slogan this year. But it’s ridiculous to imagine therefore that the Fringe benefits from the machinations of the Bush administration. The participants in the Fringe—and all the political performers and protestors who will be out in the streets this week and next—are fighting for their existence, and for the existence of our democracy. That is the cause; pressure from the right merely supplies some useful energy.

The remaining performance of “Patriot Acts” is Friday, August 27 at 3 p.m, at SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street.

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