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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON
at the Public's Newman Theatre

VOX POPULISM
By JESSICA BRANCH

  Ph: Joan Marcus

Demagogic ranting, crowds of rowdy fans, a disturbing reliance on common fears and catchy phrases – without the emo-pop blasting at this political bio-rally cum musical, it’d be easy to mistake the Public’s new offering for some, ahem, contemporary mad-hatter-and-March-hare fete. But thankfully, no – it’s Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.

The ostensible topic of this loud, slapstick satire is indeed the seventh president of the United States (Benjamin Walker) and his polarizing legacy. With the aid of a schoolmarmish narrator (Colleen Werthmann), the musical quickly sketches Jackson’s youth on the frontier and his courtship of his wife, Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez), who’s already married to someone else. The speedy exposition slows somewhat when the play turns to politics and Jackson discovers the joys not only of being a territory-taking general, but of public acclaim as he takes on the effete northeastern establishment with his rough-and-ready politics of the people. The ultimate result of the rule of the guy who (as the play describes it) “put the man in Manifest Destiny?" Lots of new land for the United States, and lots of Native Americans slaughtered and displaced to make that land “available” for the white settlers.

On a red-neon-decorated stage with a band lurking in the background, Walker, clad in classic tight jeans and loose shirt, convincingly combines down-home puzzlement with the political scene and a populist charisma, and even manages to make moments of sheer craziness – like Andrew and Rachel’s mutual bloodletting as a form of bonding – never lapse into pure cartoon. The protagonist is backed (and sometimes opposed) by an excellent ensemble cast, including a hysterically whiny quartet of contemporary pols and Black Hawk (Michael Crane), the Native American comrade he betrays – or vice versa.

The brainchild of Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers (a cofounder of Les Freres Corbusier, and the director of this show), Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is replete with vulgarity, casual comic violence, and raunchy irreverence – not necessarily the kind of history lesson you’d take your kids to. But in addition to the raw energy of this crafty rock-concert creation, there’s a surprising amount of subtle commentary on the American scene – as signaled by dropped names like Michel Foucault, Susan Sontag, and Alexis de Tocqueville.

With an excellent band delivering musical commentary (most notably, a grimly effective version of “Ten Little Indians”) in addition to accompaniment, the over-the-top entertainment also takes on issues politicians won’t touch – like what politician’s secrets are too private for public consumption? When is it okay to ignore your treaties? And what’s to be done when the people aren’t quite competent to govern themselves? The play doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but just having the questions presented so bluntly is refreshing. And, like history itself, its view of its protagonist is just as undecided: Is Jackson ultimately a devoted father or a faithless friend? A demagogue or a democrat? A genocidal opportunist or a populist hero? Or did he, like that other, very different, archetypal American, Walk Whitman, contain multitudes?

 


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