Friday, 3 November 2017

Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson takes irony to new levels in a world beset by populist notions

All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : America's 7th President was a vibrant swaggering war hero but also a slaveowner -- dozens & dozens under his thumb. As well he masterminded the diaspora of virtually all Southern native indians : some 4,000 died on his infamous Trail of Tears march. And this is a man worthy of a musical show?

Entertainment Weekly's Simon Vozick-Levinson in 2010 had some choice words to describe what he saw : "This is a manic somersault through early 19th-century American history... Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is weird, all right, but it's a weird little masterpiece." Many claim the show to be satirical. To accept that in 2017, however, one would have to believe that neither Donald Trump nor his fellow-travelers take him seriously : he's a joke he plays on himself. If only.

Serious poseur from a cast that had scads of fun with a script at times outrageous in its hilarity.

How it's all put together : The time is early 19th century America. Spaniards and Brits have made aggressive incursions north from the Gulf of Mexico into U.S. territory (places not yet states). Often they've been abetted by native tribes. Jackson is impatient with Washington and its elites. He leaves his Tennessee plantation to muster homegrown armies and defeat the invaders. He's instantly a folk hero. To fight against the powers that be he then forms the Democratic Party and promises "rule by the people". 

The opening "emotional hardcore" [emo-rock] number in this eponymous show is entitled "Populism, Yea, Yea!". Its sneering, taunting chorus tagline goes "And we're gonna take this country back for people like us, who don't just think about things." (One has to remember the show was originally scripted in 2009 during Obama's first year in office, not in 2016 when a certain media-savvy Apprentice catapulted himself onto stage right.)

Bloody Bloody has been called "post-ironic", which is another way of saying it makes fun of taking itself seriously. Fey, possibly. Outrageous. Capturously unsettling. How else to respond to show songs with titles like "Illness as Metaphor", or a riff on the time-worn children's song "Ten Little Indians". Chillingly it recounts Jackson's frog-march of tens of thousands of Cherokee and Chickasaw at the end of US Army bayonets. From their home and native land in Georgia they did a brutal tramp. In starving rank humidity they were herded to  reservations sited hundreds of miles away west of the Mississippi River -- out of sight, out of mind it was hoped. 

What this show brings to the stage : Its timeliness is, of course, self-obvious. As such Bloody Bloody reminds those who need reminding of two factoids (factoids = opinions that stand a 50% chance of being, or not being, true). 

[1] That the United States was founded by a bunch of rebels who relied on brute force -- cocksure in the belief that God granted them the inalienable right to conquer America because the country is "exceptional". "We saw it, we wanted it, and we believed it was ours!" the BBJA crew sums it up.

[2] That in today's social media age, opinions are proffered as self-obvious truths regardless of evidence pro- or con- : the mere having an opinion now legitimizes it instantly-&-inherently and makes those who oppose such views "liars" and/or purveyors of "fake news". What's popular with the people -- the base as it's known -- is the right stuff. Eff everything else. 

It must also be remembered that Alex Timbers who was primary writer of the book for Bloody, Bloody did so on the cusp of age 30. Young, brash, cheeky, prescient. One cannot suppress Obama's cheerleader call of "Yes we can!" in promising "Change we can believe in" that were current at the time. Factoid, too, that Obama's true alter-ego was not the statesmanly ex-VietNam p.o.w. Senator John McCain -- no, it was that pitbull-with-lipstick Sarah Palin, of course : did Friedland have her or Obama in mind when he penned the verses for "Populism Yea! Yea!" that go "Take a stand against the elite / They don't care anything for us / And we will eat sweet democracy / And let them eat our dust." 

God Bless America is not a sentiment taken lightly by populists down there, rather a sacred covenant.

To expand a bit : Obama, remember, was at the time the Millennials' anti-elite. He was poised to succeed not only the "misunderestimated" Republican George WMD Bush but also had to beat out the Democrat National Committee's hand-picked successor Hillary Rodham Clinton. Later, Canadian-based writer Conrad Black would -- in his best poseur mode as provocateur -- lump all of them together with the fictional aggregate name the "Obushtons". Collectively the three families represent 30 years of hegemony-&-elitism, he believes, and as such they explain the rise of a self-promoting outlier who sports swirled orange hair and crotch-length red ties.

Production values that shine through Preliminary note: Most useful to have a 24-year-old raised-in-Canada daughter to accompany this one time social studies teacher to the show. First observation she made was that the utterly in-America content of the script to tell a 200 year old story writ on USA parchment paper lost quite a bit in translation here N. of 49 in 2017. I had to agree that the details and subtleties of Yankee history were not prominent in the BC public school curriculum back in the day. (N.B. What fun it was to try to explain to Grade 11 students in 1969 how Canada's troika of "peace, order & good government" doesn't line up romantically, quite, with the USA's "life, liberty & pursuit of happiness" mythos. And, further, have to say that when asked, most of those 17-year-olds didn't even know playboy Pierre Elliott Trudeau's name nevermind his current political position as Canada's sitting Prime Minister.)

On other scores, daughter offered up how the bark mulch choice for the stage floor lent an utterly appropriate circus atmosphere to the country faire campaign rally-style set. Costumes, too, were the stuff of mostly simple folk : a bunch of red plaid skirts redolent of high school and college sports rallies befitting the pep-squad underscore of the script. Effective lighting, including the gimmick of shining bright spots back at the audience as if to suggest everyone's complicity when populism and nativism conquer quiet rational consideration of issues. 

Regrettably a miserable opening night for sound : constant feedback problems with instruments, perpetual electro-zaps from the actors' mic's, wholesale imbalances between "back-up band" and vocalists (e.g. impossible to discern opening number lyrics even in Row 2). Have to say all this distracted not only the house but the actors and musicians, too. My heart went out to them all. Still, shout-outs due to the (unidentified!) band twosome : the drummer who had a deft and subtle hand the night through and to the keyboardist who was smooth but snappy when the music charts demanded it. 

Acting pin-spots : Daniel Berube's FCP debut as Andrew Jackson was clearly baptism by fire or a polar bear swim, choose your metaphor. Co-actor Karliana Dewoolff calls the Timbers / Friedman show "a beast of a script", and she is right. (A good turn for her as the shouty Martin Van Buren sniping back and forth with AJ.) A bit awkward handling in Mr. Berube's guitar slinging, but he gave the character AJ a juvenile smugness maybe more than the writers would have preferred, still quite suitable i.m.o. Opposite as his belaboured wife Rachel, Martha Ansfield-Scrase captured the ache of a Pat Nixon who loathed the very limelight her husband was so seduced by (and whose moral 5 o'clock shadow was, ultimately, his undoing). Clear parallels there with Andrew Jackson. 

Who gonna like : Again taking clues from Daughter : aimed at 30-somethings who know a bit about The Excited States and their history. Music clearly targeting that cohort as well, though geezers who have nimble ears can appreciate it too. Choreographer Erin Michell's blocking of the chorus numbers had crafty and artful moments that helped make those parts of the evening jolly good fun.

This is truly a Georgia peach of dramatic timing. Ironic? Post-ironic? Anti-ironic? Who cares. Just to hear AJ natter at his chief Cherokee mediator Black Fox "Don't go chasing waterfalls, just stick to the lakes and the rivers that you're used to" -- a 1994 forgettable spin from a one-time group called TLC -- was enough fun to make me want to go see BBAJ  all over again.

Technical bollix's aside, these enthusiastic performers are the future of professional stage in Vancouver. Their eagerness and enthusiasm to tackle the narrative and musical and choreographic challenges  of this script certainly made last night's Game 7 of the World Series pale by comparison. With another couple of shows under their belts to sharpen their timing, this latest FCP adventure will get hearty Huzzah's of enthusiasm, no question. 

Particulars : Written by Alex Timbers & Michael Friedman. Music & Lyrics by Michael Friedman (d. Sept. 2017, age 41).  Produced by Fighting Chance Productions.  At Performance Works, Granville Island.  On until November 11th, 2017.  Tickets & schedule information via Run-time 90 minutes, no intermission.

Production team :  Director Ben Bilodeau.  Music Director Thomas King. Choreographer Erin Michell. Stage Manager Ian Crowe.  Costumer Designer Kimberly Blais & Nazanin Shoja. Set Designer Nikolay Kuchin & Sarah Sako.  Lighting Designer Michael K. Hewitt.  Sound Designer Peter Young.  Fight Captain Max Kim.  Dance Captain Annastasia Brown.

Performers :  Martha Ansfield-Scrase (Rachel Jackson / various roles).  Daniel Berube (Andrew Jackson).  Annastasia Brown (Soloist / various roles / bass guitar).  Thomas Chan (James Monroe / various roles).  David DeLeon (John Calhoun / various roles / guitarist).  Kailea DeLeon (Elizabeth Jackson / various roles / guitar). Louis Desfosses (Black Fox / various roles).  Karliana DeWolff (Martin Van Buren / various roles).  Chelsea Huang (Various roles / band leader / guitar).  Max Kim (Henry Clay / various roles / banjo).  Christine Roskelley (Storyteller / various roles).  CJ Zizzari (John Quincy Adams / various roles / guitar).

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