Politics on Stage
By Venus Zarris
Poised on the verge of quite possibly this country’s most critically important and historically significant presidential election, let’s take a look at some of the perspectives that theater in Chicago has offered on the body politic. But first, let’s briefly establish theater as political.
Politics: the process by which groups of people make decisions
Theater: 1. a place of action; field of operations 2. dramatic performance as a branch of art
Given these definitions: 1. Any campaign is a field of operations. 2. Theater engages on several levels thereby informing and/or influencing the process by which decisions are made. 3. Show me a politician who isn’t delivering a dramatic performance and I’ll show you a dog that doesn’t sniff butts. Neither can help it. It is intrinsic.
That being established, I would hypothesize that every play is political on some level, be that intended or derived. For the sake of maintaining some focus, let’s concentrate on a few examples of productions with premeditated political content. This sampling by no means represents the entirety of political theater in Chicago, but rather exemplifies a few of the more powerful offerings.
Silk Road Theatre Project is a direct creative response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Company co-founders and life partners, Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury, established this company to address and defuse the backlash against perceived ‘outsiders’ within our borders; American citizens who do not fall under the protective homogeneous appearances of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Every SRTP production has been rife with political content but perhaps the most urgent was their production of Back of the Throat.
“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin
Playwright Yussef El Guindi’s heart-pounding and truly patriotic tour de force illustrated this quote with a vivid depiction of the alarming reality of our times. If there was any doubt in your mind that the Patriot Act might not be a heavy-handed invasion of our constitutional rights, Back of the Throat was the jolt of frightening certainty needed to eliminate that doubt by clarifying our dangerous reality. Not dangerous because of the external threat of terrorists, but dangerous because of the ravaging of our civil liberties that this current administration has implemented under the guise of homeland security.
The play opened with Khalid’s apartment being picked apart by two unexpected govenment officials. Fully cooperative at first, Khalid was initially operating on the incorrect assumption that there are protections in place to assure his right to due process as an American citizen. This naive notion quickly vanished as he found himself in the nightmarish position of being brutalized and tortured in his own home. If you think that this is a far-fetched dramatization, you need only consult the ACLU. You’ll find that this not only happens, but over 1400 people have been detained, and also it has happened in situations even more egregious than depicted in this disturbing story.
Vitalist Theatre stirred the pot with their captivating production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage And Her Children. In telling the story of Mother Courage, a traveling merchant who peddles her wartime wares from a wagon pulled by her children, Brecht examined the relationship between war and capitalism. Vitalist Theatre lived up to its name by choosing this tale that exemplifies globalization meeting hegemonic military maneuvers. Patriotism is a poor exchange for logic, reason and justice and Mother Courage sums this up brilliantly when she declares, “Whenever heroics are called for it’s a sure sign that someone has fucked up!”
Bailiwick Repertory heroically tackled our nation’s biggest homeland security failure since September 11th, 2001 with its profoundly infuriating and shockingly captivating world premiere of Jeffrey Bruner’s docudrama Katrina: State of Emergency. Bruner wove actual personal accounts from survivors with real political press conferences as well as an ongoing first-hand blog page to chronologically blow the lid off of the American crime of the century.
While the 17th Street Canal levee broke, President Bush shared a Birthday cake photo-op with Senator John McCain. While tens of thousands remained stranded in New Orleans with no organized resources available, Bush diverted 50 volunteer firefighters to act as props in a disaster area photo-op five days after the storm’s initial landfall. The play was delivered with excellent restraint, allowing for a delicate build in tension, avoiding heavy-handed sermonizing and producing bone-chilling intensity.
Next Theatre’s hysterical adaptation of Nobel Laureate Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a brilliant satire on government corruption. In the midst of sidesplitting absurdity we were offered profound political observations such as “Scandal is the fertilizer for a social democracy”, and, “We are in deep shit up to our necks. That is why we walk with our heads held high.” This line rings true for our country more than “land of the free.”
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company triumphantly opened it’s 10th year with Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. Vidal’s perspectives on people who are drawn to power and the lengths that they will go to obtain it are as fresh and relevant today as they were when this first opened in 1960. Director James Bohnen recreated the early 60’s with picture perfect accuracy, still there was nothing dated about this piece that could have just as easily been written this year.
Vidal’s script was rife with timeless political observations that stand on their own as cautionary contemplations.
“To want Power is corruption already.” “It’s par for the course to fool the public, but its dangerous when you start fooling yourself.” “People in a democracy feel they have less to fear from a stupid man.” “State the obvious with a real sense of discovery.” And, “The light blinds us and we’re all afraid of the dark.”, represent just a few of the profundities offered in this delightfully entertaining polemic.
Annoyance Theatre took a more hysterical approach to American politics with their production of President Bush is a Great Man. As the titles suggests, this was balls our absurdism. They shed light on truly great things about Bush like he can use a pencil. He’s a great passenger in a car because he uses his seat belt and, “Did you know that there were 240 rapes in the D.C. area last year? Did you also know that George W. Bush committed none of them? Think about that!” This brilliantly funny show took the only good thing about G. W. Bush, his ability to inspire much needed comic relief, and ran with it.
When looking back over 6 years of theater reviews I found over 50 plays that could easily be referenced to illustrate profound cases of politics on stage and several more peripheral examples.
Perhaps the most relevant to our upcoming election came from Theater Oobleck. In 2007 they gave us the spellbinding world premiere of Mickle Maher’s The Strangerer. In it Maher nailed the most terrifying aspect of Bush’s reign of terror by illuminating the blatant and surreal disregard for human life that this administrator of mass destruction has displayed. This was theater of the absurd portraying our reality of the absurd with staggering effect.
And now through November 3, you can enjoy Oobleck Election Play 2008: The Trojan Candidate at the Neo-Futurarium. Less than 24 hours after Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden declared, “Vice President Cheney has been the most dangerous V. P. probably in American history.”, Oobleck presents a maniacal characterization of Cheney who boasts, “I’ve been driving this country into a ditch like a flaming shit wagon for the past 8 years.”
The impersonations of presidential hopefuls are hilarious and the insane premise delivers the frightening realities of our current political condition with peculiar profundity. If ever there was a time when the demons of American politics needed exorcism, it is now and The Trojan Candidate wastes no time evoking and then eviscerating the ‘evil spirits.’
Theater offers more than political commentary, but in this time of war, economic recession and the pending presidential election, comic relief and serious insight keep the critical analysis and vital dialogues flowing.
“All theater is political if it engages you. If more people took theater seriously we’d have different election results. I’ve yet to meet a serious playwright who wasn’t a liberal Democrat.” Edward Albee