Another piece making its world premiere at the Fringe is Son of a Bitch, the story of the controversial political strategist Lee Atwater. It was written by Lucy Gillespie, playwright of last year’s Keeping Up with the Prozorovs, and directed by Billy Ray Brewton, who helmed last year’s A Beast/A Burden at the Fringe.
Ms. Gillespie took some time from her busy Fringe schedule to talk to Better Lemons about the new show.
Better Lemons: What was the inspiration for Son of a Bitch? Lucy Gillespie: Lee Atwater is an awesome character. I wanted to work with Billy Ray Brewton, and this was right up his alley. Also, it's a fun writing challenge to condense all that history/spin into plot.
BL: As a native Brit, what did you find intriguing about the story of Atwater, one of the most polarizing political figures of our time? Why tell his story now? LG: Though I grew up in the UK, my mother is from Chicago, and she raised us to self-identify as American. This was confusing and alienating for me as a teenager living in London in the early 2000's, where the last thing you wanted to be was American.
When 9/11 happened, my friends all cut school to protest "Americanization.” They burned effigies of President Bush in the streets. I was often called upon to explain or apologize for the atrocities of my people. Looking back, I think that's a big part of what led me to leave the UK at 18. I felt unwanted, like I had to pick a side.
I first learned about Lee Atwater in 2008, when I was living in Chicago after college. Between the devastation of the financial crisis and the upswell of hope from the Obama campaign, the air was very charged. I saw a documentary about Lee, became obsessed, and read every book I could find. I think I felt like that was whom I needed to channel and become in order to survive in America. I wrote a play about him, The Atwater Campaign, which went on to become an O'Neill Finalist, effectively starting my career as a playwright.
Politics is a perennial topic — and especially now. A lot of folks are asking how we got here. The answer is, largely, Lee Atwater.
But he was a much more complex, charismatic, compelling human than the demonized bogeyman/genius the liberal and right wing media make him out to be.
BL: How do you hope audiences will react to the piece — on both sides ofthe political spectrum? LG: It's interesting because you assume — or I did — that a bunch of theater people in LA will all be ultra-liberal, preaching to the choir. Between the cast and crew, we actually represent a wide political spectrum. So much so that we had to put the kibosh on talking politics after some workshop readings got heated...
Our intention is to show Lee Atwater as a man, and how his personality catalyzed a dramatic shift within the Republican party, and subsequently American politics. We have no interest in theater that's dogmatic or preachy. We want everyone, regardless of political stripe, to laugh, lean in and learn.
Left to right: Billy Ray Brewton (director), Corsica Wilson (Gladys), Chloe Dworkin (Cass), Lucy Gillespie (Playwright)
BL: Tell us a bit about your collaboration with the director, another Fringe veteran, Billy Ray Brewton. How did you work together on the piece? LG: I saw Billy Ray's A Beast/A Burden last year, thought it was hysterical and brilliant, and knew I wanted to work with him. Though The Atwater Campaign was an O'Neill Finalist, it had never been produced, so I'd been sort of roaming the earth looking for a home for it ever since. In August 2018, I sent that script to Billy Ray — a Southern boy like Lee — and he signed on immediately. We chatted about story/character/cast/production throughout the year, and then I rewrote the entire script for him before rehearsals started.
It's been an equally scary and thrilling ride. There were definitely moments in April where I wanted to cut and run, never to be heard from again. In theory, I love to devise and workshop; in practice you need a foundation of trust to give in to the process. My baseline is neurotic, and Billy Ray is so chill. It took me a minute to realize that's because he trusts me, and he's not worried. That helped me relax and go with the flow.
Now we're rehearsing, and I'm in awe of him and the actors. He has such a quick, brilliant mind for orchestration. It's a master class watching him zoom in to the tiny details, then zoom out to the big picture. I'm super excited to share this with the world.
Ben Hethcoat (Lee Atwater), and Luke Forbes (George "W" Bush)
BL: Is there humor in this show? LG: For sure. I'd describe the tone as political satire.
BL: Tell us about the performers and how they came to be cast in their roles. LG: The cast is a mixture of Prozorovs and Burdens. Ben Hethcoat, who played Chris Burden last year, is reviving his 70s hairstyle for Lee Atwater. Corsica Wilson, playing Gladys, is also a Burden alum. On the Prozorovs side, we have Chloe Dworkin — who you may recall as the pregnant, constipated Olga - playing Cass. Luke Forbes, who played the Kanye-esque Demetrion, is now a young George W Bush.
Rounding out the cast are David McElwee (writer/director of Rory and the Devil, also in Fringe), who is bffs with Ben from college, and Dennis Gersten, who saved all of our asses by signing on at the last minute as George H W Bush.
BL: What makes Son of a Bitch a good fit for the Hollywood Fringe? LG: It's bold and funny, fast-paced and hard-hitting. We work hard, but we don't take ourselves too seriously.
BL: What brings you back to the Fringe again this year? LG: Last year was so much fun. Between the show rehearsals, our tight and loving Chekhovian-Kardashian cast family, the wider network of Fringers, and all the great theater we saw, it was just a blast. I spend the rest of the year writing screenplays and pitches, which is lonely and somewhat more creatively constricting, so I've been counting down the days. No joke, I hit up Billy Ray about this project in August.
The title of this meta-comedy will be immediately recognizable to any avid fan of Damien Chazelle's film LA LA LAND. In the film, Mia Dolan, an aspiring actress played by Emma Stone (who won an Academy Award for her performance), writes herself a one-woman show called "So Long Boulder City" in a desperate attempt to boost her faltering career. Only 9 people show up - none of whom is her boyfriend Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling. However, her ploy works out better than she ever expected, since one of the attendees is a high-powered casting agent.
All of this is such far-fetched nonsense - as I wrote about in one of my first columns for this website - that it seems to be crying out for lampooning, and this show by Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black more than fills the bill. While not everything works, the parts that are funny are howlingly so - as in one bit that features Abraham Lincoln's niece. Personally, I could see anothere way to go with this parody, that would hone closer to the character of Mia Dolan and evoke Ms Stone's performance more acutely. But this broadly farcical approach works too, and Mr Fowlie is a hoot as an untalented LA actress who is too in love with herself and her "dreams" to even notice how terrible a performer she really is.
I highly recommend this if you want to laugh your ass off at one-person shows in general and at the LA entertainment industry scene in particular. But it's better if you know the source material well - or can go with someone who does.
The fun continues at Celebration Theatre until November 6th. But if it keeps selling out the house, as it's been doing... do I hear extension?
375 shows! Ben Hill! Matt Quinn! Blah blah blah blah.
For the last week I've been in a secret bunker far far away from anything remotely resembling a Fringe show, trying to decompress.
Yes, I set out as a young man on June 1st, wanting only to provide as many shows as I could the kind of coverage that I'd wanted (and rarely received) during my Fringescapades in 2013 and 2016. A mere 3 weeks later, I was a grizzled and hardened old man, hobbling away like the Phantom of the Opera at the mere mention of the word ... "Fringe."
Me, as sleep-deprived Fringe Monster
I actually had a Fringe wife, Alison. We had three Fringe children, a Fringe Boy named Turbulence and two Fringe-lets, Cherry and Poppins, who had both male and female sex organs. Everything was so great at first, and it felt like it was going to last forever (and I do mean For-----ever), but then she cheated on me with The Motherfucker with the Hat, and I cheated on her with Nicaea. Then Turbulence ran off with all the prizes and Cherry and Poppins married each other (oh no!) and had their own children, Shakeslesque and Psychosical. I was a Fringe Grandpa! - but they wanted nothing to do with me, just shaking their freakishly large organs and singing songs that all sounded vaguely familiar. I caught up with Alison again at The Girl Who Jumped Off The Hollywood Sign, and it felt like we had gone back in time to the very beginning - oh no, that was Nicaea again. Alison disappeared Under the Jello Mold, and I guess that was it. I got the official kiss-off at Divorce, the hip-hop musical, where I saw her sneaking off with The Spidey Project. "I'll show you," I muttered, and threw myself into The Pleasure Project. That was great for around 45 minutes, but then it was all Chatter. "Goodbye Alison," I said to The Tomb. "We'll always have Mr. Marmalade."
Week into my Fringe Marriage. You can already see traces of Fringemania in me.
FRINGE REALITY - AND MORE REVIEWS
But lo and behold, the Fringe is not over! No no no! Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water - or whatever that metaphor is - FRINGE ENCORES is here! And you should definitely check it out, because all those shows you did such a good job of missing the first time around, well, a lot of them are still here. And you're not going to be so successful in missing them this time or my name isn't Fringestrodamus! (Yeah, you should make reservations right now or my name isn't... that Fringe show about the Mob which I don't think was extended.)
And the fact is, I have unfinished Fringe business of my own - shows I saw and wanted to write about, but never got around to it. (I blame Alison.) So here are some shows - some got extensions, others didn't, all are worthy of mention.
Let me also mention that PSYCHOSICAL: An Asylum Cabaret has one additonal performance you can catch, on Friday July 28th at 10 pm at the Three Clubs. It's a wonderful show, surprisingly funny. It's adeptly directed by Kristen Boule and excellently performed by Kate Bowman, Jessica J'aime, Reagan Osborne and all involved. It may already be sold out by now, but give it a shot. Hopefully it gets a longer run in the near future.
If you just went by this play, you'd probably think that writer/director Tricia Aurand was around 110 years old, just sitting up in some attic somewhere reading all the books ever written about the History of Christianity. "Oh, that Athanasius!" you can just hear her croaking, "you're such a card! I just have to put you in scenes with Eusebius and Melecitus - they will kill at the Fringe! And I'll throw in a little Hosius - who could resist that?" Actually, though, looking at Tricia's bio, it appears that she's a fairly recent graduate of Azuza Pacific who has simply been gifted with an enormous supply of the nerd gene. Why else write a "political thriller" - her description, not mine - about the Council at Nicea, where Christianity had to come up with a definitive log-line (How about: "You see, Jesus is like this fish out of water ... in fact, he's a fish out of water who can walk on water") to satisfy the Emperor Constantine... and you're asleep. In fact, there's probably a good play in this material, but this isn't it, at least not yet. It's too small, too literal, not theatrical enough to bring this theological argument alive for a contemporary audience of any kind, much less a Fringe audience. Also, Tricia, hire a director next time, because you accentuate the stuffiness of your speeches by having everyone stand around like statues while they're talking. It's your job to get us as excited about this material as you are. You've got Anna Chazelle - sister of LA LA LAND director Damien Chazelle - and she's pretty good doing the little you give her to do, as are Dontrell Brinson and Brendan Haley, but give them something to act! It's a friggin' play, not a high school theological debate! (And...you're asleep again.) And get a better poster next time. This one certainly doesn't shout "political thriller." More like "And now I lay me down to sleep."
Oh, I had such hopes for this! Such high hopes! Only to be so cruelly dashed and then set ablaze if "ablaze" meant really boring. Billed as "A Punk re-imagining of an Elizabethan classic by the Knights of Allentown West" (huh? who?) this instead comes off as a bunch of kids doing silly shit while saying words that sound nice but have no particular meaning. I had spoken with the star, Brando Cutts, at one of the Fringe parties, and he convinced me that he was gonna rock the house with this Dr. Faustus character, yeah! He was gonna bring Christopher Marlowe himself - the badass of Elizabethan playmakers - back to blazing life. (Where "blazing" was not something boring.) And I pushed back on the man, I expressed my severe doubts that he could pull off this feat, since Marlowe is so oratorical and, yeah, kind of pompous too - see, I studied him at Oxford, and not the one in Mississippi y'all, because, Tricia Aurand, I have something of the nerd gene in me too. And, let's face it, even little babies know what it means to make a Faustian bargain, I mean even Adam Sandler (the biggest baby of all) has gone there, so how was he going to make that story new for us? And Brando Cutts told me, "Just show up. You'll see." And I showed up, and the first five minutes were fun, with Brando looking a bit like a young Mick Jagger, tossing aside all the books, because he already knew them backwards and forwards, and calling out to the devil to show him something he hadn't already seen. And then the Devil showed up in the person of a young woman wearing a mask and... everything was set ablaze, if "ablaze" means the same old same old story was told, and I wished I had never spoken to Mr. Cutts.
I saw this show by magician and comedian Jon Armstrong on a Saturday afternoon at a crappy venue (the McCadden Place Theatre - and yes, it is crappy) with 11 people in the house including the Hipster, when shows all up and down Santa Monica Boulevard were having to turn crowds away. This got to Jon Armstrong - he made some huffy aside about having played to thousand seat houses in Vegas. And I don't blame Mr. Armstrong for feeling this way, because he is good. Very good. His tricks are original and inventive - at least they seemed so to me, admittedly no expert when it comes to the magical arts - and he is FUNNY. Very funny. Not in that audience-pleasing "have you heard the one about" way, but quick and smart like a showboat gambler funny. He's the kind of performer who's always thinking of a better way to put across his material, who doesn't rely on stale retreads of previous performances to make his point. Why did this talented man have so few folks in the audience? I have no idea, no more than I understand why Dr Faustus sold out all their shows. Why was he at such a lousy venue? I don't know - down on his luck? Lousy management? There's something a little bit unlikeable about Mr. Armstrong, who is tall and (as I said) smart in an aggressive way, like the quick-talking guy on the debate team who could make your girlfriend disappear. But that's exactly what I liked about Mr Armstrong and his act - he was good, and he knew he was good, and he lets you know that he knows. The Fringe is mostly for oddballs and misfits, and that's not him. The man has some mad skills. Give him some bright lights and a big stage and an audience that wants to be entertained.
This short play (25 minutes) won all sorts of awards - the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Scholarship Award, the Short + Sweet Award, maybe a few others too - which is amazing to me, because it's not very good. In fact, it's pretty terrible. The play is about a mixed-race young woman who is struggling with all the negative, self-destructive voices in her head, and I'm sure to the playwright I must sound just like one of those voices. My apologies, Ms. Lewin - who seems like a wonderful person and compassionate teacher, from the few minutes we spoke - but your play is simply not dramatic. The central character, Vanessa, is too passive, she's just a vehicle for bringing on one "negative" girl after another - "you're too fat," "you're too black," "you're not black enough," "you're not Jewish enough" - on and on and on, but to what end? Choose one or two negative characters who come to the forefront and do battle with Vanessa - and then have her battle back. That's a play. Right now this is just a ploy, a way of making everyone like the main character and feel sorry for her. So what? You call that dealing with suicidal impulses? Teen suicide is a plague, and we need plays that put the issues front and center so that kids can relate to them. This is not that, however many awards you may win, or however many parents you get to support your venture. As it happens, I have dealt with suicidal thoughts - and written about it in my memoir The 13th Boy - and I have lost friends to suicide. I have also taught playwriting to high school kids, and I can tell you right now that I had five plays better than yours from a class of ten 14 year olds. I'm sure you're a great teacher, but you're not even a passable playwright. Do better.
This is a difficult one for me to figure out. It came with much ballyhoo, having been chosen as the best of the 23 plays by women playwrights in the Ink Fest, and it features terrific performances by Jessica Stadtlander (as an 11 year old boy) and Jessica J'aime (as the main character's memory of a hooker he loved). It deals with a socially inept young boy (Stadtlander) whose only friend is an immobile black writer who is dying, and whose mother is admittedly sociopathic with nymphomaniacal tendencies. Sounds like something cooked up by a modern-day Truman Capote, right? I kept feeling like I should love it, and yet I didn't, because I didn't really see the point. The dramatic point, that is. I know that I keep going back to that, but it's not enough to be weird and outlandish, there has to be a dramatic question and something that keeps moving the story forward. Again, it had all the elements of a series on Netflix or Amazon, but there you could go inside the head of the immobile writer, you could concoct storylines that dealt with the thoughts and feelings of the main characters. Right now the most active character is the sociopathic mother, who is doing all she can to kill her son and run off with his homeroom teacher. When she isn't putting her hand in file cabinets and purposely slamming the file drawer on it. That's not enough to hold my attention - in fact, quite the opposite. I can see this succeeding as a book or as a TV series, but it's definitely not a good play.
I first encountered Linden Waddell back at that same party where I met Brando Cutts. Ms. Waddell was handing out bags of peanuts to promote her show, and I didn't get the connection between Allan Sherman and the nuts. She later read my post expressing that and told me that Allan Sherman's third album was titled "My Son the Nut." Aha. Later on at that party, another Fringer had said to me, "Her show is never going to work, because she's got an operatic voice, and there's no way that's suitable to the ditties of Allan Sherman." Well, surprise, surprise - it works perfectly! Ms. Waddell does have a "big" voice - she describes herself as being like Ethel Merman - and God knows that Allan Sherman had a nasal voice, and that his songs are quite the opposite of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and other signatory Merman show tunes, but somehow that unexpected combination is what makes this so wonderful. Oh, and the presence of Marjorie Poe, Ms. Waddell's accompanist, is priceless. She looks like she should be playing the church organ at Episcopal services in Des Moines, but instead she's having the time of her life playing Allan Sherman's zany tunes. Again, the two women together couldn't be less Jewish, and that ends up being a huge plus, as they discover sources of humor in the songs that I would never have expected. The fact is that Ms. Waddell's gentile dignity lends an emotional element to Sherman's silliness that I hadn't thought possible, and she does so with such respect for and knowledge of Allan Sherman that it caused me to reconsider his work as something more than just a relic of the early 1960's. I hope that Ms. Waddell can extend her 55 minute show with another 15-20 minutes of material as funny as what she has now, and then watch out! This show could work anywhere, and it really has unlimited potential to please audiences of any kind.
Finally, I don't get the Fringe's system for choosing its winners. I only saw two cabarets, PSYCHOSICAL and SHAKESLESQUE: To Thine Own Cherry Be True. The latter used a mash-up of Shakespeare plots and characters (sort of) to play out a scenario of gender roles and sexual orientation (sort of), while giving a huge number of performers the chance to whip their clothes off and do some burlesque (often quite sexy). The singing was another mash-up of songs and styles, none of it very memorable, and all of it way too long and formless to be good cabaret. PSYCHOSICAL was clearly and without any doubt the superior entertainment, and yet SHAKESLESQUE won both Best Cabaret and Top of the Fringe. To which I say: shame on you, Ben Hill. In no universe is that true.
Donald Trump (Harry S. Murphy) and Barrack Obama (Joshua Wolf Coleman) in Ray Richmond's play Transition.
Donald Trump has been ridiculed for years. He is practically a caricature onto himself – like the most extreme example of the Ugly American come to life. We have seen President Obama's takedown of Trump at the White House Correspondents dinner, and Alec Baldwin's broad version of him on SNL – but since November 8, 2016, many of us haven't been laughing anymore.
Several shows at this year's Hollywood Fringe Festival were written as a cathartic release for artists who felt frustrated and depressed when Trump surprised us all and won.
Each show has different ways of satirizing the Trump phenomenon, and a few of them, like Too Many Hitlers or: The Decoy Decameron, were written long before the election – but all of them mock the powerful.
While they might differ on underlying themes or tone, the creators of each show say getting laughs is more important than making political statements. These are not grim thought pieces.
Satire uses ridicule and exaggeration to poke fun at our leaders, thus (hopefully) robbing them of some of their power. But when Trump is already so ridiculous and outlandish, won't even the most cartoonish and exaggerated version of him pale in comparison to the real one? And if anyone is laughing, so what? Ridicule hasn't exactly stopped him before.
Rick Cipes, who wrote and stars in Zombie Clown Trump: An Apocalyptic Musical, believes that an artist can comment on an already absurd Trump administration by being even more absurd.
"In Zombie Clown Trump, Sean Spicer is now played by a Sesame Street Puppet named Sean Sphincter, Melania Trump is now "Barbania" Trump and played by a Barbie doll, and Trump himself isn't only a clown, but a zombie clown who has triggered a world wide zombie apocalypse," he says.
Seeing an excerpt from the show at the Fringe Cabaret, I find the character more menacing than funny, and don't want to get too close to him. But clowns have always scared the shit out of me, even before Pennywise from It and Trump came along.
Cipes is a former journalist, and years ago he wrote an article called Trump du Soleil predicting that Trump's fifteen minutes of fame were nearly up – but as he says, seeing as how they aren't up quite yet...he still believes a combination of different forces, including ridicule and laughter, can help bring the man down.
He felt powerless after the election, but writing the show helped Cipes realize that the world won't end because of one creepy clown. The song that plays as the audience exits his show echoes includes this thought.
Transition by first-time playwright Ray Richmond approaches Trump differently than Zombie Clown Trump, but it is no less of an attack on him. President Barrack Obama and Donald Trump met in the White House 36 hours after the election and details about what happened during that meeting are still sketchy.
Transition imagines this encounter between two men who are polar opposites; Trump, loud and possessing an oversized ego, versus Obama, erudite and professorial. The media, with a bizarre sense of relief, reported at the time that the meeting had gone well (Obama has given hints in recent interviews that this was not the case.)
That post-meeting sense of relief didn't last long, not in reality or in this play. "Trump is only influenced by what shiny object is front of him and then 30 minutes later, it's something else." Richmond says. "Obama's optimism that he could influence Trump is lost when he realizes this guy really is a piece of shit, he really is an idiot."
Richmond, who like Cipes, has a background in journalism, wrote the original script in a two-week frenzy after the election. He says he didn't want just another takedown of the boorish image of Trump, or some kind of Saturday Night Live spin-off.
"We really wanted him to be taken seriously on some level," Richmond says, so Harry S. Murphy, who plays Trumps, dialed down his performance since the original run at the Lounge Theatre earlier this year. It was little too over the top before, Richmond says, and what we see now is scarier, even grim, but there are certainly comic flourishes.
"Trump is ignorant, but he's not stupid. He understands combat, verbal combat, and he understands winning. We think it's scarier if you take some of what he's saying and it makes sense and is intelligent," Richmond says.
Transition does an excellent of building tension – before deflating it with a well-timed joke, only to build it up again. One can only wonder how much this awkward encounter resembles what really happened in that room.
Richmond is not interested in, as he says, being Switzerland – taking some middle ground or balanced approach. For him, this is no time to be in the middle since he considers the election of Trump the scariest thing to happen to this country in years, rivaled only by cataclysmic events like 9/11.
"No, I really don't believe satire can really begin to change people's minds and hearts, I wish it could," he says. "Unfortunately, satire is constructed and almost exclusively supported by intelligent people. Trump's supporters are best in denial or living in ignorance. They are not people who appreciate satire – they'd just call it leftist crap, they'd say you liberals! They don't understand cleverness or irony or truth in humor, it's all lost on them."
In that, he is like Cipes who when asked if he wants to spark an awakening in people, says says he has no intention of doing that – he wants to preach to the choir, and alleviate their fears with a night of humor.
Trump may not have created the intense divisions in this country, but he certainly knew how to exploit them. Plato said we laugh at other people so we can feel superior to them, and so much of modern satire comes down to pointing at those idiots over there, but not implicating ourselves. The Rising and Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy couldn't be more different tonally – but their creators are alike in that they turn the lens on themselves as well.
"Jonathan Swift said satire is putting a mirror in front of you and looking at the world, except you're not in the picture" says Armen Pandola, the creator of The Rising. He laughs, and says "I try to do it and include myself in the picture."
He does believe it is possible to reach beyond the liberal bubble and doesn't want to be polemical at all. The Rising is really skewering social media, which the Trump campaign used so successfully against Hillary Clinton, and we are all a part of that world.
We talk about The Rising a few days before a gunman attempts to assassinate several G.O.P. congressmen practicing baseball. The play is about a shadowy revolutionary group that starts randomly killing one politician every day, but government insists they don't exist and that these reports are fake news. But the bodies keep falling.
"Hey, there's somebody being killed every minute, some of them are bound to politicians," says one character. The play is set in 2033, but it could happening five minutes from now, or as it's poster art says, in a world that is just an explosion away.
The title of course comes from that old Quaker tradition of a community coming together to raise a barn. "The idea of The Rising is that it's a community of people looking to change and build something, but of course the methods they use are not good. They're killing people, and I don't hide the consequences of that" Pandola says.
People are moving further into their own respective camps, and Pandola wants to show this highlight these divisions by making them even more extreme, showing us where we might be headed.
Gillian Belllinger, Landon Kirksey and Kevin Richards in Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy
Trump in Space: A Musical Comedy is a parody musical set 400 years in the future. It follows the adventures of Captain Natasha Trump, the great great great great granddaughter of Donald Trump, who has destroyed the planet leaving humans to find a new one.
The show's co-creators Gillian Bellinger and Landon Kirksey both hail from that strange, alternative universe called Texas. They are also huge science fiction fans, and they use Star Trek as the main inspiration – always in an attempt to be as overtly silly as possible.
"One of the things I love about sci-fi is that it gives us a lens to talk about things that are complicated but gives us the space, pun intended, to do so in a way that is less emotional and close." says Bellinger. This is exactly what Gene Roddenberry did on the original Star Trek – he created a show where unsettling and even taboo subjects could be discussed, cause, hey who doesn't like space? Or for that matter, science fiction parody musicals?
Early drafts did attack all those idiots over there, but after staged readings Bellinger and Kirksey got notes saying you need to point a finger at everybody, so they wrote jokes at their own expense.
"We didn't want to be just lopsided and obviously are political beliefs are very apparent, but it really is the polarization of this thing that is the problem, so where you shine a light on that you become more aware...of...how can I affect change by coming together as opposed to dividing," says Kirksey.
Another division I find is that many people don't want to laugh about Trump, or even think about him. When I tell a friend at Fringe Central that I am writing a piece about satire on Trump, he shakes his head and says, "I'm tired of hearing about him."
Jon Jacobs in Dreams in Overdrive
Dreams in Overdrive is a solo show that briefly deals with Trump, and it's creator Job Jacobs echoes this thought when he says, "I've seen one other show that included a little of political Trump humor, and I found myself completely turned off. It kind of makes me nervous for my audience. Do we really even want to laugh about Trump? Or would we rather just completely ignore his existence? Since Trump is already so absurd, any attempt at making fun of him also just makes me sick."
Steven Benaquist, writer and one of the performers of Too Many Hitlers
Which brings us to everyone's favorite punchline, Adolph Hitler. Too Many Hitlers is a farce about one of the most evil men who ever lived.
Nine of Hitler's decoys – one of which may be the real Fuhrer--are hiding in a bunker in Berlin during the closing days of World War II. The sight of multiple Hitlers on stage is funny, especially when they break into a song and dance number, or do an extended bit of dialogue taken entirely from the titles of Sylvester Stallone movies.
The song Nazi Me is Nazi You is funny too – a fatherly Hitler decoy is explaining to a more junior member that the essence of being a Nazi is what you are not...you're not old or weak or a cripple or black or jewish or whatever. This is when the laughter starts to sting cause now you've been tricked into laughing at something that is inherently not funny.
The humor is obviously very dark, and after testing the show against audience reactions, Steven Benaquist, who performs in and wrote the show, lightened some of it's aspects. But he stands by the dark humor of the piece, even if some audience member might be put off by the tone.
"The reason why some people don't like it is late in the show they grow attached to these Hitler decoys and they don't want to be reminded that they were fucking racists, they hated the jews and I don't want them to forget it," Benaquist says. He wants people to laugh, but also remember that the Nazis were and are evil.
Andra Moldav and Kate Rappoport in How to Love Your Dictator: Olga & Ludmila's Guide to Fascism.
If Too Many Hitlers is a farce that wants to remind you of the past, How To love Your Dictator: Olga & Ludmila's Guide to Fascism imagines a worst case future scenario; Trump is Putin's puppet and we have been annexed by the Russians.
The scene is set by loud Russian rock music, cold war era propaganda films and a complimentary shot of Vodka. Several people are shot. The audience is thankfully spared.
Kate Rappoport was born in Poland and Andra Moldav in Romania, but both moved to America when they were still children. The show is partly based on conversations about their experiences growing up in Eastern Europe, and how their grandmothers had such a negative outlook on the world. Originally a four-minute short they created with their sketch group Femmebot PhD, they expanded it after the election into a holiday show they called The Last American Christmas.
How to Love Your Dictator takes the outlook of growing up in an oppressive culture where you don't have freedom of speech, and cannot make fun of political figures. It plays like an episode of Access Hollywood or TMZ, only hosted by two depressive Russian ladies. They offer Americans helpful tips on living under a dictatorship. "Thank you for spending your last free days with us," they cheerfully tell the audience near the show's end.
""I just feel that in American society, satire and being able to express what makes you laugh is so entrenched in our society that it's funny that I don't even think about it too much or as some dangerous political statement because I know I have the freedom to do that." says Rappoport.
"We as Americans are used to laughing at people that are in power, and it's really cool that we are allowed to do that," she says. "It's crazy to think in other countries people can't laugh at what's going on cause when they do, it creates incredible changes in society."
So can we laugh Trump out of office? Of course not, but as Benaquist says, condemning mockery as useless is itself useless. Cipes still believes in the power of laughter because, as he puts it, Trump is a bully and bullies hate to be taunted – it throws them off their game. Authoritarian regimes want to create a culture of fear--but if if you ridicule the powerful, and take down the image of the glorious leader, perhaps you are one step closer to changing things. But first you have to laugh.