A shared national trauma has a way of infusing everything we see and hear with echoes and portents: It’s natural, if not always accurate, to see the Zeitgeist moving behind every curtain. This weekend, as news of the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords swallowed the country, I saw two shows about American madness and its complex and stochastic relationship with American politics. The first, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, I’ll review later in the week. The second is Freedom Club, a collaboration between the Riot Group (the agit-collective behind 2007’s Pugilist Specialist) and a Philly-based organization called New Paradise Laboratories.
Freedom Club, by punk-inflected playwright and performer Adriano Shaplin, flits through a quick history of homegrown extremism, and does so with deep debts to (in no particular order) Artaud, Assassins, and, in its mock-historical frat-poetry patois, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. (“America hates my guts,” despairs Abraham Lincoln [Drew Friedman], as his future-assassin John Wilkes Booth [Jeb Kreager] fulminates, “Keep your virtue. Children are virtuous. Retards and slaves have stupid virtue.”) Staged pugnaciously in a naked, nearly scenery-free space, with a strip of masking tape separating north and south, Union and Confederate, modern and anti-modern, the first half of Freedom Club is a grim burlesque of Lincoln’s final days, complete with the usual conventions: a depressed President, a crazy Mary Todd (Stephanie Viola), an egomaniacal Booth working through serious jealousy issues with his more famous actor brother Edwin (Paul Schnabel). But Shaplin and his crew aren’t all that interested in the interior lives of historical totems (and thank goodness): They’re just looking for vessels to fill with the scalding hot bile of Right Now. “Okay,” says Booth, drawing pistols. “Murder time. What you’ve all been waiting for. Someone’s got to shoulder the fucking musket in this rotten modern age. North is the new crown. Abe is King George. We need another tea party.”
Yeah, occasionally, that Now-ness overspills its banks — but I’m not sure the Riot Group, which has never shied away from overtly political gestures, much cares where it falls along the timely-versus-timeless continuum. And Kreager, in full, ferocious alienation mode as Booth, delivers Shaplin’s most resonant refrains (“Fear doesn’t lie,” and “I conquer my dreams!”) like body blows. His focus is impressive, his sense of the ridiculous resolute, his comic timing impeccable.
That firmness is a great asset, because almost as soon as it’s fully under way, Freedom Club starts to get distracted: Its take on fringe impulses becomes narrowly psychosexual, and gender issues come to the fore with initially intriguing but ultimately half-coherent results. Whit MacLaughlin’s machine-gun direction does a lot to cut through the fog in the show’s first half, but as we progress into the future, Shaplin’s vision seems to get lost in the inchoate American ideological murk it’s trying to denature. Lincoln dies, and the dates tick off: 1866, 1877, 1888 ... My heart sank a little as we sailed past the present into the future, a notoriously difficult territory for political theater to colonize. Indeed, the future we end up in — a 2015 where Obama’s been assassinated and America’s last lefty rebels find themselves at the center of a Waco-like siege — feels so overconceived and freighted with detail, it hits a false note, even coming off a little naive. (A feminist cult army? Really? What is this, 1972?) Yes, untethered extremism buggers true ideology here in the ADD Land of the Free, where Belief is just a free-floating phantasm, alighting promiscuously on the shoulders of the deranged and the dream-sodden. But the elaborate doomsday scenario Shaplin spins here feels as tendentious and free associative as a Glenn Beck monologue. (Interestingly, Shaplin himself plays the cult’s charismatic leader.)
Freedom Club’s no lucid distillation of the country’s current madness — that, I suppose, would be an impossibly tall order. But in its best moments, it channels our abundant ambient insanity with profane elan and gut-shot black comedy. I think I’d like to see it again, a rewrite or two from now — and maybe on a weekend when the news cycle is a little less pertinent.
Freedom Club is playing at the Cornelia Connelly Theater through January 15.