A timely political take on Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless tale of the clueless monarch, “The President’s New Clothes” has been updated for the fourth time since its inception at the height of the Watergate scandal. Playwright/director Deborah Langerman told the surprisingly small audience – whose numbers may speak to a waning public interest in an outgoing Administration, as well as to a misprint in the promo postcard regarding the start time – that the play’s previous and enthusiastically received excursions to high schools across the country had, for unknown reasons (conspiracy theories, anyone?), been nixed this time.
We enter the intimate Forum space downstairs at the Harman Center to the patriotic oom-pah of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Once seated, we look up to see a white desk with a pseudo-Presidential seal – which, when examined closely, reads “President of the United States, Lame Duck,” as does the one on the red podium at stage right. A large blue cloth draped high behind the desk, flag-like, is covered not with stars, but with a galaxy of corporate logos: Ma Bell, Nike, Chrysler, Apple, Warner Bros., and McDonald’s among them.
The play is done almost exclusively in pantomime – Langerman is a celebrated mime – with narration from the storybook read by Vickie Smith (who also takes on with aplomb various other roles). The color scheme is bold and primary; as with other Fringe plays, there are many before-your-eyes costume changes, which the actors manage with grace and dexterity.
As the President, Bruce Kelley does a credible and sometimes spot-on imitation of W, finding the right blend of humor and humanity. The deadpan expression perfected by Langerman herself (a last-minute stand-in for Dave Buttram) as the Tailor, leavened by a Buster Keaton-like wide-eyed stare, makes her nonchalance a pantomimic gem. I will long remember the way she greeted the confusion of the President’s advisers – who feel constrained to laud their leader’s invisible new suit, yet compelled to somehow make sense of it – by languidly blowing bubbles out of her shabby suitcase, or thoughtfully, attentively creating colorful balloon animals, as if this were an act of profound, self-evident significance.
While Langerman may not be playing the role when you see the show, her stamp will most certainly be on it. As with that storied suit of clothes, sometimes what you don’t see invisibly but indelibly informs what you do.
- Running time: 40 minutes
- Tickets: The President’s New Clothes
- Remaining Shows: Sun, July 13 at 7:30 . Sat, July 19 at 4 . Sat, July 19 at 10 . Sun, July 20 at 4
- Where: The Forum at the Harman Center, 610 F Street, NW
Remaining shows: Saturday, July 19 at 4:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.; Sunday, July 20 at 4:00 p.m.
Where: Shakespeare Theatre at the Harman Center, The Forum; 610 F Street, NW