Election season is fraught with rhetoric, innuendo, accusation and hyperbole. Facts are twisted, motives interpreted and failings magnified--each candidate spins his own image and spins the other guy's, too. And this is the way it has always been in politics.
CityStage Ensemble's Dan Hiester recognizes spin-doctoring when he sees it, and he and his ensemble cast have put their own spin on things with Bard Bytes, a witty evening of theater that is part improv, part Shakespearean tragedy and part political parody. The experimental work cuts across the centuries to apply the historical insights of Shakespeare to current political machinations.
In a modern twist, scenes from the Clinton-Dole debates and from a pair of Bill Moyers documentaries about the effect of TV on politics are shown on monitors, while moderators Hiester and Antoinette Le Conteur mock and comment on the video images. The moderators tell us right away that they want our participation in our own manipulation--"partipulation," they call it. Then they proceed to frame a political debate between two Shakespeare characters: Mark Antony, the man-of-the-people from Julius Caesar, and Coriolanus, the military authoritarian.
We are reminded at once that Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's most unpopular plays. The ancient Roman was a man of principle, but if he were alive today, he would be a kind of moderate fascist--an oxymoron that comes vividly to life in Christopher Tabb's eloquent, intelligent defense of him. Tabb recites Coriolanus's speeches and argues with actors Stephen Remund and Petra Ulrych over the merits of a centralized government where trained leaders do what they do best and the rest of us farmers, teachers, laborers and business folk do what we do best.
Tabb's arguments are all the more interesting given the fact that large populations have been talked into accepting authoritarian rule with just such reasoning. And when Tabb mocks his "opponent," Mark Antony, for his licentiousness (that business with Cleopatra) and for his self-serving identification with the masses, those criticisms ring true. Politics, the second-oldest profession, is always a matter of choosing the lesser evil.
Remund and Ulrych, Hiester's appointed advocates of democracy, defend Antony's populism--his ability to identify with poor citizens, to speak to them in a language they understand and to trust a little more to their discretion than a man like Coriolanus ever would. They whitewash their hero's foibles much in the way that supporters of Bill Clinton rush to the defense of the president. But while Antony is a manipulator, he's ultimately less dangerous than Coriolanus, who is more honest.
Remund brings a fierce passion to his arguments, while Ulrych seethes with ambition, intelligence and conviction. And the ironies fly thick and fast, since it is Coriolanus, not Mark Antony, who bows to the will of the people in the end.
Interwoven throughout the "debates," we see actual TV ads from the Eisenhower campaigns of the 1950s, devised by ace public-relations man Rosser Reeves. The cynicism of sloganeering is driven home, and the clips from Moyers underscore the manipulation of the news media that occurs right along with the manipulation of the public. It's frightening indeed, and it comes almost as a relief when we plunge back into the "reality" of the theater space and Shakespeare's imaginative interpretation of history.
In fact, watching TV in a live theater situation is very jarring. The push-pull of the small box and the living actor reminds you that watching TV is an unnatural activity. Hiester wants us to consider why we are uncomfortable moving back and forth between the electronic device and the human beings competing for our attention.
CityStage appears to be dedicated to controversial, intelligent theater, and as free-form as Bard Bytes is (the actors actually hold their scripts throughout), there is plenty of method in all of Hiester's madness. The production has its flaws in timing and technique, and certain allowances must be made for the improvisational moments, which can become quite heated. But in the end we've not only learned something, we've been prompted to think and to question the political process. We've even been entertained.
Bard Bytes, through December 1 at the Theatre at Jack's, 1553 Platte Street, No. 101, 433-8082.