Volume 75, Number 32 | Dec. 28 - Jan. 3, 2005

Theater

“Fear Itself, Secrets of the White House”
Written by Jean-Claude van Itallie
Directed by George Ferencz
Through Jan. 8
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue btwn. 9th and 10th Streets
(212-254-1109; theaterforthenewcity.net)

Photo by Mark Roussel

Ken Perlstein plays a swaggering President Bush in a theatrical satire of his administration, “Fear Itself.”

Satire of Bush is all bark, no bite

By Rachel Breitman

With the President’s poll numbers in a tailspin, the theater community in this liberal city would welcome some biting political satire that takes the current administration to task. Well, lefty thespians and audiences will have to wait, since “Fear Itself, Secrets of the White House” is pretty toothless. It neither invokes fear, nor shares secrets, and it strays so often into artistic hyperbole, the cartoonish characters that represent the Presidential family and advisors become limp caricatures.

Brussels-born and Harvard-educated Jean-Claude van Itallie, the play’s scribe, has been leading spiritual and artistic workshops in a barn in Western Massachusetts for the last ten years, so maybe he is out of the political loop, since his older works, like the Vietnam-era “American Hurrah” (1966) and “The King of the United States” (1972) hit their targets far more directly. The current piece, with its exaggerated characters, painful Southern accents, and repetitive double entendres is about as effective at helping viewers picture the controversy that swirls around the current administration as a crayon drawing sketched by a five year old.

Emperor Butch, played by Ken Perlstein, bears a strong physical resemblance to the President with his cowboy swagger and bushy eyebrows, but by making him a castrated mama’s boy, van Itallie creates a boring, childlike mockery of a protagonist. Cheney is replaced by Vice Emperor Big Money, a dangling disembodied dollar sign with an off-stage thick mafioso accent that lacks the controlled calculations and just-restrained anger of the current second in command. General Pow Pow (Powell) and General Gin Rummy (Rumsfeld) are both miscast, and if not for their silly names, would bear little resemblance to the originals`. The only fitting adaptation is the evil plotting lapdog, Rover (Rove) who does his owner’s dirty work, salivating over a tragic event that could bring Emperor Butch untapped, unmitigated absolute powers.

Emperor Mommy, a blue nightie-wearing, lithium-taking Laura Bush, is far too shrill, frenetic and annoying to convey the always pitch-perfect speeches, smiles and waves that make Mrs. Bush the country’s sweetheart. By the time the audience is introduced to the rest of the royal family, it has all but lost interest in trying to connect the silly stage antics to any real-life events.

The play abandons reality entirely by reframing the Bush twins as a gruesome threesome. Adam is a leering wispy-voiced gay dancer, his brother Junior is the crewcut-wearing good soldier, and Eve, the solo sister, is spacey and victimized. As the dithering Eve develops the ability to see the future and shrieks in pain as she visualizes war and terrorism, van Itallie takes a detour into Greek tragedy. The bright lights, offstage explosions, and recreation of war noises are horrifying, no doubt, but after establishing a pun-filled introduction, the playwright is ill-equipped to bring his audience into a serious conversation about war and its human toll.

Further distracting is a large painting of Barbara Bush, known as Big Mommy, dressed as a wolf in sheep’s clothing that sits over the backdrop of the Oval Office, where the drunken Emperor and his drugged wife chase each other and play nighttime charades. Mrs. Bush Sr., as an off-stage voice over the phone, takes the President to task for putting his feet on her coffee tables and threatens spanking.

With the issues of media control, invasion of civil liberties, and bloody battles taking a back seat to Big Mama drama, the political bite of the play is more or less removed, and the fanfare of taking the audience on a voyeuristic journey inside the White House fades to a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Because Americans today have a lot more to fear than fear itself, a darker, more sober representation of the political powers that be would be more menacing than this elementary school brand of humor.

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