Although there was only a small audience for Listen Productions' Mediamockracy on the night I attended, its members were intensely involved in the play. As I discovered during the actor-audience chats inserted into the performance, these were media-savvy people, deeply aware of the role of news dissemination in a democracy and passionate about the show's topic: the Democratic National Convention as a media event and, more broadly, the ways in which the media shapes our thoughts and actions.
Director Mitch Dickman and his actors — Karen Slack, William Hahn and GerRee Hinshaw — had been intrigued by the convention: the saturation coverage, the protests and the Democrats' ties to corporate interests, as evidenced by the lavish party AT&T threw for the Blue Dog Dems whose votes reliably support the telecom industry. They moved among the conference participants, asked questions and shot video. These elements, along with film from other sources, such as Democracy Now!, are woven into the plot, which revolves around two characters: Piper Cummington, a viperous Fox News-style anchor, and Richard Guy, who hosts a comedy show in the vein of Stephen Colbert's. Piper considers herself a real journalist; Guy doesn't pretend to be one, but he's capable of tossing off the occasional coruscating political zinger. Their feud is hugely entertaining, and their tactics illustrate the deficiencies of the mass media: the attention paid to trivia over substance, the substitution of personality for policy analysis, the way comments get taken out of context through soundbites and gotcha moments.
These characters aren't entirely consistent with the types they're supposedly parodying. Piper is far more interesting than the vacuous women on Fox, and also smarter: It's hard to imagine a Fox commentator making an extended comparison between protesters and the kids in Lord of the Flies, for example. As for posturing, prancing, hypochondriacal and monomaniacal Guy — is he really supposed to be Colbert? Colbert's entire persona is a spoof, and how do you mock mockery itself? Colbert also presents — although by contradiction—a consistently liberal perspective, and his courageous speech at the Washington Correspondents' Dinner in 2006, a speech made while the president sat almost at his elbow, created one of the first breaches in the wall of silence and complicity erected around the administration by the mainstream media. Guy, by contrast, is a lost blowhard with no political compass. But the inconsistencies don't really matter, because Hahn and Slack are so brilliantly and juicily idiosyncratic in their roles. They make these nutty people real rather than simple caricatures, and they do so with such zest that you start wishing someone would really give them their own TV shows.
I can't say that everything about Mediamockracy works as theater. Some of the points seem obvious or get belabored too long. The perspective comes from further to the left than mine (there's a sentence I never imagined myself writing!) and is more cynical; I'd argue with the show's suggestion that there's very little difference between the Democratic and the Republican parties. During Barack Obama's acceptance speech, I was moved by a profound sense that something important was stirring within our nation. In his analysis of the speech, historian Simon Schama noted that Obama had woven together two great oratorical traditions: "On the one hand, that of black redemption: saturated with scriptural passion; the eloquence of Martin Luther King (whom in a wonderful conceit Obama simply called 'the Preacher'); the language that altered what Lyndon Johnson believed and did. And on the other, the rhetoric of American classicism: Lincoln's, Franklin Roosevelt's and Jack Kennedy's. From these distinct threads, he is hoping to make a new American fabric of speech." And, we can hope, a new American politics.
During the first actor-audience segment, I found the cast's insistence that we, the public, should do something about media corruption naïve, given our corporate news system. It's hard to see how letters, phone calls and e-mails could make the remotest difference. But as Hinshaw engaged us in direct dialogue, I was swayed by both her commitment and the audience's seriousness. Theater, too, is a form of communication. Besides, five years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine progressives like Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow hosting major cable shows as they do now, and I doubt they'd have gotten there without all the people thronging cyberspace and demanding something different from the pap they were getting. So kudos to Listen Productions for an energetic, thought-provoking evening that keeps the chuckles coming and the frontal lobes brightly lit.