In her new preface to the 10th (10th!) Anniversary Edition of No Logo, Naomi Klein goes on an extended meditation on Barack Obama as the first “branded” president. The posters, the slogans, the grassroots effort to transform a man into a lifestyle, Klein’s arguments are characteristically insightful, incisive, and entertaining. But I respectfully disagree.
Case in point: Les Freres Corbusier’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Public. The piece has gotten virtually uniform rave reviews from the highbrow and lowbrow crowds alike, as the Freres continue to do what they do best: experimental performance with a sense of humility, humor, and fun. And BB/AJ is perhaps the most successful to date, a beautiful blend of intelligence and raucousness.
Naturally, the piece is an emo-rock musical exploring the struggles of our seventh president, from youthful remembrances of Native American ambushes to the stealing of the election that put John Q. Adams in office, despite the fact that Jackson won the popular vote (sound familiar…?). The cast is amazing, the music by Michael Friedman is unnervingly dead-on, and the design—set by Donyale Werle and lighting by Justin Townsend—put the audience in a cabaret atmosphere where the pioneering West meets Limelight (my personal favorite touch: mounted moose heads asphyxiated by clear trash bags). In other words it’s what the grittiness of the supposedly “hip” pieces on Broadway—Next to Normal, Spring Awakening, and the ill-advised American Idiot—want to be. But they’re not. Sorry, Mr. Mayer.
The most notable aspect of BB/AJ is how it hearkens back to the lost art of political burlesques, which flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. Every character, including Jackson is caricatured to be mythical, absurd, and pitiful, thanks to Alex Timbers’s text and direction. My one complaint, and it is a small one, is that the burlesque is a bit uneven: the least successful parodies are the ones that gesture directly to George W. Bush—that Jackson is a “uniter,” a xenophobe, a powermonger for “democracy,” a cowboy. Not that I have a problem with mocking our former prez. But alone it seems unfair, and eerily outdated.
What would make the piece work better is acknowledging that Jackson has just as much in common with our current commander-in-chief: a superhero in touch with the everyman, a symbol of brute force and a “new day,” with a huge dose of the “Yes we can” attitude. If anything, the piece is an amazing send-up of the U.S. political system at large, and limiting it to the easy target that was Bush cheapens the broader, incredibly significant implications.
But BB/AJ remains one of the most brilliant and entertaining pieces I’ve seen to date.