Published in The New Republic
You know New York theater is obsessed with politics when Much Ado About Nothing includes an impersonation of Paul Wolfowitz. Brian Murray, playing the constable Dogberry in the summer New York Shakespeare Festival production in Central Park, licked his hand before fixing his hair, which he said was inspired by the deputy defense secretary's comb-slobbering scene in Fahrenheit 9/11. (Michael Keaton used a simlar gesture in Kenneth Branagh's film version but, considering the political climate, it was hard not to immediately think of Wolfowitz when watching Murray.) There have been so many shows in the last few months intent on tearing down the Bush administration that they've even run out of titles--Patriot Act, Patriot Acts, and Live Patriot Acts: Patriots Gone Wild. Many were timed for the Republican National Convention, but, a month and a half later, the goods just keep on coming. Eat the Taste, about John Ashcroft aspiring to turn his life story into a musical, recently opened Off Broadway. A.R. Gurney's Mrs. Farnsworth, about a middle-aged woman who got pregnant by George W. Bush long ago, began a third run at The Flea starring Sigourney Weaver. And Tony Kushner's Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy has had readings at various venues.
But skewering a president through theater--regardless of how easy a target he might seem--is not as simple as it looks. Most shows are so busy flinging their tomatoes or indulging in clever gimmicks that they skimp on standard dramatic conventions, such as complex characters and compelling stories. The most successful shows accomplish their task rather counterintuitively: They take their target's point of view seriously.
A prime example of a musical comedy that uses this strategy to its advantage is The Passion of George W. Bush. The show went up at the New York Fringe Festival this summer and is getting an election-eve presentation at Joe's Pub on November 1. Spoofing the title of the Mel Gibson film was not only a brilliant publicity stunt--at the Fringe, the catchiest and most outrageous titles get the most press--but a brilliant storytelling concept as well. The show deftly theatricalizes the Bush story by drawing out its time-proven heroic archetypes and subverting them.
In the musical, Bush starts out as a deadbeat drug user and a failed oil businessman. Dick Cheney and Karl Rove peg him as an easy target, and, through religion and good political coaching, they mold him into a president who's a front for their nefarious ends. Bush continually analyzes his transformation and looks to God for guidance, before he realizes he's been deceived and sets the record straight by using his 2004 convention speech to resign from office.
Book and lyrics writer John Herin said that he, fellow writer Adam B. Mathias, and composer Alden Terry made a conscious decision to play against their personal feelings for the president by making him a sympathetic moral hero, rather than a cowboy caricature, in order to give the show an emotional arc. "If it had just been a bitter attack from the start, it would have just gotten old really fast," said Herin. "There always needs to be someone that you're emotionally invested in and someone you really care about. It allows you to make all the subsidiary characters really nasty and despicable."
Herin said he tried to view the president through the eyes of Bush's supporters. "They're so sold on his moral character that they think that any bad policies that emerge from his administration are not his fault, that he was misled by his advisors," Herin said. "We tried to embrace that viewpoint and show how ludicrous it is. We decided to give him the benefit of the doubt to the extreme." As the title implies, the musical conflates Bush's life with the Christ story, an archetype used by many musicals, such as Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who's Tommy. Personal awakening, transformation, a steady rise, and a quick fall are all perfect elements for musical theater, in which songs must accompany a character's significant revelation or change. But, as Herin implied, his Bush story adds twists to the archetype. Bush's disciples are betraying him from the beginning, and the God figure, Cheney, is an unqualified villain.
The Passion of George W. Bush plays on the connections between Bush's story and that of the prodigal son, a paradigm derived from a parable told by Jesus in the New Testament: A young man runs off to laze away, responsibility-free, before returning home to claim his family title. It's a staple of art, high and low: Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Simba in The Lion King, and Shakespeare's Hamlet and Prince Hal, whose connection to Bush lent timeliness to Lincoln Center's production of Henry IV and the New York Shakespeare Festival's Henry V, both last season. Again, however, the show toys with the heroic archetype. At the beginning, Bush's father is portrayed with the caution and mediocrity his last name implies, in one song counseling his young son to be "like a Bush": honest, humble, and gentle. But when the younger Bush returns from the wild days of his youth, instead of following his father's worldview he gets sucked in by Cheney's, which mixes religion and aggression in a way that bewilders and torments the younger George.
Another twist in the play is the inspired choice to cast George's more level-headed brother Jeb with a black actor, Charles Browning. It provides a sly comic twist that equates the close-mindedness of racism with the foolhardiness of elevating such an ordinary man to the presidency. Jeb's scenes are reminiscent of musicals such as Hairspray, Big River, and Caroline, or Change, all recently on Broadway, in which the situations that white characters see as frivolous games, the black characters recognize as serious problems. Here that attitude becomes comedic via Jeb's deadpan sarcasm. "Who woulda thought I'd be governor?" Bush muses rhetorically. "I give up," Jeb replies.
Among the many plays that are taking George Bush seriously is Tony Kushner's Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy. In the first scene, Laura Bush prepares to read to a group of dead Iraqi children. While Holly Hunter, in the reading I attended, plays Laura as a caricature of obliviousness, her portrayal sets up the second scene, in which a more realistic Laura, now played by Cynthia Nixon, confronts Kushner himself (played by Hunter) about his portrayal of her. That second scene demonstrates that Kushner understands Laura and George Bush's point of view toward Iraq, such that he can later tear it down more credibly. The technique softens, but also justifies, the bit of fun had in the first scene at the First Lady's expense.
A.R. Gurney's play Mrs. Farnsworth concerns a middle-aged woman who shows up to her creative writing class with a true story about how Bush got her pregnant and then forced her to have an abortion. It's a juicy gimmick, but it wouldn't be the same without the villain--the very conservative Mr. Farnsworth, who manages to be even-tempered and dignified while barging in to put a stop to the story-writing, in contrast to Mrs. Farnsworth's nutty vehemence.
Another standout is the documentary play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, still running at the 45 Bleecker Theater. Sharing a stage with haunting jail cells and fellow prisoners reading the Koran, characters based on real prisoners talk about the indignities they endured in their many months at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The tales are from the prisoners' point of view, but they're told simply, not adorned with any commentary. The U.S. government does speak--through its actions--and what it says is quite disturbing.
This philosophy of understanding your enemy is perhaps why a couple producers of recent political theater insisted they were more interested in grappling with the issues than in targeting a party or an individual. "We're not doing it as a specific critique of this administration, but as our creative response to, and to call attention to, injustice," said Alan Buchman, head of the Culture Project, which produces Guantanamo. Political and moral issues, as The Passion of George W. Bush and other shows demonstrate, can't be examined unless you treat your opponent as someone who believes what he's doing is right. Even if what he's doing is slobbering on his comb.