|That's our President|
Alex Timber and Michael Friedman’s Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson is a rock, no, let me be more exact about this, a rock/emo/punk blend musical about a young, hot, wild President who enjoys dropping f-bombs as often as his contemporaries drop dead from frontier living, who gets a kick out of kicking political ass, and when things get dark and lonely cuts himself so that he knows that he’s real, a bloodletting bond he shares with his eventual wife. The play is both entertaining and educational, but the parts that are entertaining are not educational and the parts that are educational are not entertaining. In the end, despite this odd schizophrenia of enjoyment and knowledge, Bloody, Bloody is well worth the Jacksons to see it: Jon Tracy’s direction is lively and the play does answer a question that has haunted American politics for over a century: what if Andrew Jackson were a rock star?
SF Playhouse probably pushed the stage closer to accentuate Jackson’s rock star status (Bloody, Bloody is the first production in their new theater on Post St) and that coziness works well for the play. You feel like you’re right at the foot of the stage of a huge concert and when I first saw the set I half expected there to be a most pit instead of chairs, which says a great deal about Nina Ball’s excellent set and the overall affect of the show. Ashkon Davaran as Jackson is always center-stage, which is perfect for a larger-than-life, rock star President, even when he isn’t a larger-than-life, rock star President and just wishes to be a larger-than-life, rock star President. His supporters and opponents (well-played by the ensemble in multiple roles, especially William Elsman and Angel Burgess) are generally pushed to the side and among us; while Mr. “of the people” does the representing and everything else cool. Some people are just born to command the stage and this is where Bloody, Bloody’s symbolism really takes off, especially in the midst of our actual Presidential race and America’s split and competing notions of what constitutes a President and a star.
When Bloody Bloody’s reveling in “flip-the-bird” accuracy, it’s exciting and full of a rambunctious energy and so, for instance, you really don’t care that Martin Van Buren (Michael Barrett Austin) is munching on a Twinkie and dripping with fey homosexual undertones. It’s both of our world and the past and the intersection between the two is enlivening. Where Bloody, Bloody falls short or starts to hemorrhage is when it gets real, historical or educational or all three at once—the last twenty minutes are somber, high-handed and focus on the atrocities committed against the “injuns” under Jackson’s presidency. While the near genocide and subsequent persecution of American Indians is no laughing matter, the simple truth is that the overly moral sections of the show are boring and might have the unintended consequence of belittling the very issues Timbers and Friedman want to address.
The zanier aspects of the first hour balance a light, irreverent tone with some historical insight. We understand that Jackson is kind of a cool dick, as the ensemble sarcastically sings to him, “Everything you say is right!” But even in the show’s finer moments there are problems of getting and maintaining the right tone. Assigning the role of the narrator to a wheelchair bound history buff (a game and capable Ann Hopkins) with a mad crush on Jackson seems forced and unnecessary, as if we needed reminding that this isn’t the 19th century and that politics is often about unrequited love. We’re supposed to laugh at this stuffy nerd, zooming around stage in an electric wheelchair, but it just doesn’t fit beyond simply being in the “future.” At least she does get shot periodically.
If you look beyond Bloody, Bloody’s need to educate, the rest of the play more than makes up for the slow, liberal guilt sections. The songs are energetic, if not memorable (the sound levels on the microphones could use some work) and both the script and the production do a good job of moving the action from one part of Jackson’s story to the next. The play and SF playhouse’s production mirrors the pell-mell chaos of the real Jackson’s life and presidency. It’s not historically accurate and Jackson certainly didn’t look like a young rock star as he aged, but it feels historically alive and is an enjoyable way to think about such a divisive personality and his crazy romp through a complex and disturbing moment in our country’s past.