This weekend, with great reluctance, I ventured to our nation's capital and finally saw the new political theater play everyone’s been talking about.
Every conversation I found myself in was bloated with reviews by my bewildered friends. They’d go on about the "fantastic absurdity" the "bizarre characters" or the "bleak inhumanity" of it all. Was this awed praise spewing out their mouths, or the post-traumatic mumbles of someone who’s been terribly abused? Despite my hesitations, I twisted my neck towards this modern art atrocity … with the same curiosity I afford a multi-car pile up on the side of a road.
Passengers on the train to D.C. pawed at the screens of their electronic devices, like puppies begging to play outdoors. Every phone, laptop and tablet displayed some kind of press about this government themed production. Even TV newscasters (our nation’s only sober voices for un-sensational clarity) were speculating for days on end about the ongoing saga. In the face of that much hype, how was this play going to be anything but disappointing?
If I’m perfectly honest, I’m rather spoiled on performance art from cities truly devoted to the craft. Whether it’s New York starving artists, clamoring on stage to bask in each other’s ego … or oversaturated Los Angeles beauties, vapidly smiling into the unblinking abyss of a camera lens. By comparison, the worn-out and elderly performers of D.C. barely have any sport left in them. They remind me of a chubby mal-coordinated child, whose fumbling attempts at athleticism diminish the game for everyone.
Hesitations aside, I exited Union Station and found myself in the empty streets of D.C. At first, I couldn’t tell why so many office buildings seemed abandoned. But then I remembered that the main theme of this play was a "shutdown" – and like children waving plastic Harry Potter wands, Washington residents were all too eager to jump on a pop-culture trend.
I made my way to the Theater, keeping my face low and hoping no one I knew would recognize me. The performance was being held in multiple grandiose buildings, with pompous names like: "White house" and "Capitol Hill." Clearly, this was another instance of a production flinging money around to overcompensate a lack of substance.
Attempting to gain credibility among a fashionable youth, Playbills were handed out to theatergoers by performers dressed as hobo-hipsters. The papers had the look of a pamphlet calling for revolution, but contained within them all the relevant information about the play.
Reading mine, I learned that the same group behind "Shutdown" was also responsible for the recent "Surge of the Tea Party" and "Hunt For a Birth Certificate" productions that fared so well among the toothless crowds of the Alabama theater district.
I took my seat in the heavily lit atrium, and waited patiently for some semblance of a plot to unfold before me. It would be one of many hopes that were slowly strangled to disappointment that night.
"Shutdown" was supposedly about an idealist president and his loyal senators, battling a group of rebellious congressmen devoted to destroying the very House they were sworn into. As these two tribes clash, they allegedly discover their common humanity and shared wisdoms, helping the nation grow as a result.
Any attempt to summarize the actual storyline I endured, would require assaulting my readers with the same minutia and bloated self-righteousness that I endured for four unrelenting hours. The writers of this monstrosity seemed to borrow themes from Shakespearean tragedies and great American novels, but did so with all the nuance of a belching Walrus head-butting a brick wall.
The stoic hero, played by Barack Obama, never exhibited a single emotion beyond a math teacher’s joyless restraint. The main antagonist, played by Ted Cruz, performed his lines with the smugness of a drunken town fool. So eager to soak up the praise he believed the audience owed him, Cruz forgot to include even the faintest glimmer of conviction in his tone. The complete lack of genuine humanity in his grin would make him a prince among car salesmen.
Michele Bachmann played the court jester, crudely inserted into the play for comic relief. Her wide-eyed manic face betrayed how overwhelmed she was by the task of performing multi-syllable sentences. Whenever she infected the stage with her presence, the audience endured watching her struggle to simultaneously breath, blink and think. Rand Paul secured the role of a weak Hamlet impression, fearful of his father’s shadow and conflicted in his ideals by the diverse voices in his head.
Rather then flesh out any of these characters in a way that would make them engaging to the audience, the writers randomly peppered in a never-ending array of "Tea Party" lunatics. Randomly taking the stage to deliver 2-minute monologues of ever-increasing stupidity, these cheap suited baboons would quickly disappear, never to be seen again. At first I couldn’t understand why there were so many meaningless roles played by morons, but then I discovered that the production’s main financiers were the famous industrialists Koch Brothers. They had apparently forced the writers to accommodate the talentless children of their nepotistic colleagues.
Clearly, money can buy you anything. Which brings me to the only characters I found interesting: the shadowy "lobbyists." These gruesome creatures seemed to wield a magical power over all the actors in "Shutdown", like political hermaphrodites capable of seducing and fornicating with people on both ends of the ideological spectrum. But the audience never got to confront the full depravity of these demons, forced instead to endure more Tea Party puppetry.
The audience grew noticeably restless as they attempted to navigate the plot. Within one Act, characters would randomly leap from a conversation denying changes in weather to one condemning abortion. At one point, a character praised the Constitution as a holy document, and then almost immediately criticized one of the central amendments as misguided. The nonsensical chaos was nauseating. The only central theme seemed to be a collective petulance by the "congress" to bring the affairs of state to a screeching halt, so that each of their lunatic voices could be heard.
This was like watching the Lord of the Flies, where a bunch of children run around an island adjusting the rules as they see fit. But there was no resolve, no meaning, no lesson or value to this misadventure. The audience endured hours on end of this marathon of disorder. And when the final Act came, and we all hoped that we would be rewarded with some kind of conclusion, we received our biggest shock of all.
The play stopped.
The actors broke character and approached the audience. With an unfathomable audacity, they asked us for money! They claimed that they’d reached the end of their funding, and needed more cash to keep the play going, and reach its proper conclusion. Some people were so overwhelmed, that they handed over whatever they had in their pockets. Perhaps they were hoping a reason to watch this show would reveal itself.
I chose instead to walk out.
The bar for performance art has once again been lowered. So low, this time, we might question whether it’s simply been flung on the ground beneath us … like fetid manure falling from a once regal horse. I hope this phase of our collective culture is a temporary one, like Disco or Herpes. Remnants of its infestation will surely scar our psyche for years to come, and in doing so hopefully steer us away from ever again supporting this level of buffoonery. We deserve better.
The only comfort I took from the whole affair, as I made my way back to New York, was knowing that Hollywood would no doubt leap on the opportunity to sensationalize this popular event. Perhaps Tom Cruise will play the president, dispatching his enemies with machine gun fire and slow motion explosions.