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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson weeks ago at this point and this review of sorts has been rolling around in my head and on scrap sheets of paper ever since. It's been hard for me to articulate exactly my thoughts on it, but here is my best attempt.

I liked it.

But - I didn't realize I liked it until, oh, about 2/3 of the way in. Before that moment, which happened shortly after Jackson's inaguration, my mind shuttled helplessly between appreciation and confusion, searching for some kind of handhold.

Bloody/Jackson is a show about the seventh president of the United States of America and therefore, by nature, a political show. As such, I went in expecting a political message of some kind. I'm acquainted with the Trail of Tears and Jackson's legacy; I suppose I expected some sort of indictment of the politics that enabled such a brutal chapter in United States history. Perhaps even some kind of parallel drawn between Jackson's actions and the political climate today.

And when that message did not immediately present itself, I was confused. (Although, I can say with moderate - if not total - certainty that the fault here was mine for the expectation in the first place, and not the play's.)

Yes, there were references to Jackson's "maverick politics," that smacked of the McCain/Palin campaign of 2008, but the play (and Jackson, its mouthpiece) also speaks of a yearning for change in the political status quo that was the tone of the nation that elected Barack Obama. And still at other times, Jacksons idiotic recklessness mirrors the antics of George W Bush.

All this, though, without judgement: Jackson's actions may be impulsive and ill-considered, but his intentions are always good. He acts always out of a desire to affect change, to move his beloved nation toward something better. That more often than not he does so brashily and angrily does not change the intention. If anything, the stodgy and comically farcical founding fathers who represent traditional American politics (or, as traditional as a 25 year old nation can claim to be) make Jackson's impassioned style noble by contrast. Whiny, temperamental and volatile, Jackson is no real hero, but he's certainly no anti-hero either.

Hmm. What to make of that, then?

The answer eluded and frustrated me for most of the play. But still, I appreciated it. In productions so broadly farcical, so heavily stylized as Bloody/Jackson, it's an easy error to allow stylistic elemnts to stray from one another, creating a sort of artistic mismatch. A melodramatic flare here, a drop in rhythm there is all it takes to give the impression that one is watching a sum of disparate parts, each belonging in a different play. It's a bit like matching denim on denim: the parts can be similar, almost identical, even, but unless they are cut from the exact same cloth, the effect is ruined.

Bloody/Jackson never strayed from the cloth from which it began. Truly no easy feat. It knew exactly what it wanted to be, and it was that, from begining to end.

And it was enjoyable.

There was a point when I thought the play was over (it wasn't, not hardly) when I thought to myself, "Well, I don't know if I liked that, but I definitely enjoyed it.

As the show went on, though, I did decide I liked it. It was smart, sharp and well-executed. What's not to like? I does lack a degree of emotional resonance that would compell me to love it: the best example of this is the love duet sung between Jackson and his future wife. "This blood is not a metaphor," they croon cutely as she literally bleeds him for medical treatment. Clever, but without emotional power. But while it somehow misses the depth of that ecstatic moment when one connects intellectually, emotionally, physically to the piece, I still find I have very little bad I can say of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Oh, and I did eventually get the point. And it was a good point. As the hapless historian-narrator finally points out, "You can't shoot history in the neck." Jackson, for all his good intentions and fiery deeds is no savior; he cannot fix, as he so brashly believed, all that's broken in his country. He cannot even stop history from remembering him as "an American Hitler." Time and history marched on, and continues to march on, even today. The play's echoes of contemporary politics underscores that. And we do what we can to bend its path in a favorable direction. But to believe, as Jackson did, that you can control the tide, is merely hubris.

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