We are all actors, but none more so than our public representatives. It is one thing to invite the wind to blow and crack its cheeks, but quite another to introduce legislation which would actually make the wind do that, in the name of climate change. Or: it takes a fine actor to play Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona, who first ardently woos Julia, and then tosses her over to pant after Sylvia. But how much finer an actor it takes to vigorously and passionately embrace Common Core or the Far Eastern Trade Pact, and then to next week denounce it with equal vigor and passion!
Even when a legislator is speaking in behalf of something in which she believes – a more common occurrence than you might think – she must still be a great actor. That is to say, she must make her speeches sound fresh and spontaneous, even though she has said the exact same thing three hundred and eighteen times. When she denounces Obama, or ISIS, Sen. Rand Paul (R. – Ky.) or some other hobgoblin, she must convince her audience that she is being moved to rage and love of country, and not thinking of the pastrami sandwich her Chief of Staff has waiting for her once she’s on the road again.
No one was better at this than Ronald Reagan, of happy memory. When he delivered a speech, he would choke up – the little head nod, the misty eyes, the catch in his voice – the exact same moment each time. He was as reliable as an atomic clock. He was, of course, a professional actor, and we all knew that. But we had a curious double vision: we believed him (or most of us did, anyway), and we marveled at his ability to make us believe him. He was the most successful politician of his time.
So why shouldn’t our political leaders just admit what they are, and spend more time on stage? I was thinking that while at Studio watching Mary Kate Olson is in Love this past weekend. Why not a version in which the Hon. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex) plays Ashley and the Hon. Bernie Sanders (D-I-S., Vermont) takes on the role of Mary Kate? Cross-gender casting is common now, and was a necessity in Shakespeare’s time. It should not be beyond the skills of our great Congressional actors.
Fortunately, I had an opportunity to test out my theory on Monday by watching the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual Will on the Hill production, Midsummer Madness. This play was neither Shakespearean nor staged on an incline of any sort, but instead comes from the deft pen of Peter Byrne, and staged at STC’s capacious (and sold out) Harman Hall.
STC supplemented the Congressional cast of Midsummer Madness with media bigwigs like the Post’s Dana Milbank and Robert Siegel from NPR’s “All Things Considered,” all-purpose magnificos like the anti-tax dragon Grover Norquist, and rich people. The Harman stage, which has easily accommodated the battle scenes from Tamburlaine, was filled to the brim.
Well, this was more philanthropy than art. Will on the Hill co-chair Bernie McKay announced that the production raised over five hundred grand (before the show, the Shakespeare lobby was filled with – I know this will shock you – lobbyists) for STC’s various educational program. We got to see one of the beneficiaries before the Congressionals trooped onstage: the West Springfield High School students in STC’s Text Alive program did I.2 from As You Like It (you know the scene; Orlando takes on the Court wrestler and bests him, thus winning the love of Rosalind.) This was an unexpectedly swell experience; these young guys are better actors, even, than Members of Congress.
Student directors Bonnie McClellan and Elaena Hutcherson moved the setting from the 16th century to the 1970s (similarly ancient, I’m sure, to these students) and gave it a disco flavor; when Orlando (here played as a guileless everyman by Scott Burrows) wishes to take on Charles (William Shipley, who is fabulous in this) it is not at wrestling but at dance. I have to say that while Orlando is good, Charles has the moves; it is fortunate for our hero that a fight breaks out at the end of the dance, so that Orlando can give Charles what for. Afterward, Orlando and Rosalind (the graceful Grace Dush), aided by her cuz Celia (Sydney Degnan, who is also very strong) do an excellent representation of young, giddy, irrational, first-blush love (gee, I wonder how they know about that?).
After giddy and irrational love, we move on to our celebrity cast, and giddy and irrational venality, double-dealing, and treachery. Our story is that we are at the offices of the uberlobbyists Stratford, Avon and Bard. (There is a picture of the firm’s founder on the wall; he wears a fabulous suit, but with his scruffy beard and hip wild hair he resembles a certain playwright you know). The firm’s senior partner (Ed Gero) is about to make a new hire, but he is torn between two fine candidates, played by Brandon Uranowitz and Samira Wiley. They are, the senior partner shrewdly notes, of different genders, and the crucial question is which gender is more effective as a lobbyist.
This is a question which Shakespeare never asked directly, and so the SP asks his enormous staff to dress up in Shakespearean garb and present the great questions of the day – the Keystone pipeline; journalists lying about their war experiences; and so on. The job applicants will have to rely on the stereotypes of their genders to persuade antagonists to agree – Wiley’s character by seductive wiles and feigned weakness; Uranowitz’s by gruff comradely confidence and subtle intimidation. Or, after a lecture by those famous cross-dressers, Portia from Merchant of Venice and Rosalind from As You Like It, by putting on the costume of the other gender: Uranowitz the seductive nymph; Wiley the hammer.
Who wins? Who cares? It was great seeing these fabulous actors on stage. You know Gero and Uranowitz (Torch Song Trilogy, and a Tony nominee for An American in Paris.) Wiley is a featured actor in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black”, which many Members of Congress watch, perhaps hoping to see someone they know.
And how were the Members and the other celebrities on stage? Frankly, not bad but not great. They had their characters down, by and large, and brought a robust energy to their roles. But their timing mostly was terrible. Here, let me pick on the Hon. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), principally because I recognized her (the program did not identify which celebrity played which role). She played the termagant Kate, from Taming of the Shrew, brilliantly. She let us know what Kate would be in her mature years: tough, unyielding, a shrewd shrew with a little mischief behind her punches. (In an amusing conceit, Byrne has Petruchio (the Hon. Gerry Connolly, D-VA) completely henpecked and beaten down at this point.) But she missed her cue by what seemed to be five minutes, and even the great Gero was flummoxed.
There were a couple of notable performances. The hon. Ann Wagner (R. Mo.)did a nice speech at the epilogue. Ron Christie, founder of Christie Strategies LLC, did an elegant turn at the end. The hon. Jim McDermott (D. Wa.) emoted convincingly as a frustrated physician (he actually is a physician, although I do not know whether he is frustrated) but did not seem to be on the same page (it was reader’s theater) as his colleagues.
The one celebrity who I can say with confidence belonged on the same stage as the professional actors was the hon. Jared Polis (D-Co.). I do not know what sort of Congressman he is (I assume pretty good, since he keeps getting reelected) but I’ve seen him in a couple of these things and he has significant acting chops. If the redistricting demons ever get to him and he does not want to return to the information management business, he has a place on the boards.
Alan Paul had the unenviable job of directing this crew (can you imagine shouting, “Damn it, Senator Leahy, faster louder funnier!” Neither can I). He did OK. It helped to have Gero, Uranowitz and Wiley, who seemed completely natural with each other despite what I’m guessing was about thirty minutes of rehearsal. I do not know their politics, but I hope they do not give up acting to run for office. In the meantime, everyone else should probably keep doing what they’re doing now. Except maybe for Polis.
Act I, scene 2 of As You Like It, by William Shakespeare, produced by the Text Alive program at West Springfield High School, directed by Bonnie McClellan and Elaena Hutcherson, featuring Grace Dush, Sydney Degnan, Kads Tolba, Joey McNally, Brandon Peter, Stephen Stark (co-sound designer), Graham Morris, William Shipley, Allie Quimet, Claudia Ferraro (co-costume designer), Scott Burrows, Dominique Ramos (co-choreographer), Erica Berkowitz, Catherine Ariale (co-choreographer), Mallory Astrow (co-prop designer), Breanna Brown, Kaitlyn Duncan (co-costume designer), Maddie Gadway (co-costume designer), Elaine Stewart, and Heidi Hunnicutt (co-costume and co-sound designer), as well as Ms. McClellan and Ms. Hutcherson. The teaching artists were Vanessa Hole and Victoria Reinsel and Bernie DeLeo is the drama teacher.
Midsummer Madness by Peter Byrne, directed by Alan Paul, featuring Edward Gero, Brandon Uranowitz, Samira Wiley, Jonathan Allen, Hon. Joyce Beatty, Hon. Suzanne Bonamici, Ron Christie, Steve Clemons, Hon. Gerry Connolly, Hon. Chris Coons, Bob Cusack, Hon. Ted Deutch, Rich Edson, Hon. Janice Hahn, Hon. Jim Himes, Amy Holmes, Rick Klein, Hon. Patrick Leahy, Hon. Alan Lowenthal, Hon. Carolyn Maloney, Hon. Jim McDermott, Hon. Jim Moran, Hon. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Latoya Peterson, Hon. Jared Polis, Hon. Charles Rangel, Christina Sevilla, Robert Siegel, Pamela Lynne Sorensen, Hon. Tony Cardenas, Dana Milbank, Grover Norquist, Hon. Stacey Plaskett, Hon. Ann Wagner, Hon. Elise Stefanik, Hon. Dina Titus, Kelly Jane Torrance, Hon. Mike Turner, and Hon. Ryan Zinke.