Have things become so grim in our political life that we’ve lost the capacity to laugh at ourselves? Granted, we have managed to nominate the two most despised candidates for President since we started measuring this sort of stuff. Hell, I’ll go farther than that: Hillary and the Donald are the most disliked candidates for President in human history. Aaron Burr would have higher favorables than they do, even after he shot Hamilton and declared himself Emperor of Louisiana. And — beyond all the verbal napalm which will surely be thrown in this Presidential campaign — there is our general miasma of accusation, recrimination, and political blame.
So how can we rise up out of this morass, and back to where we were in the old days, when we took good contemptuous pleasure from our political system? The secret, my friends, is in comparison. No matter how bad we do things here, it’s much worse on House of Cards. It is customary for people to throw each other under the bus in contemporary political life, but in House of Cards Frank Underwood (now President Frank Underwood) really threw a reporter under a Metro train.
In fact, reporters are always getting the short end of the stick on House of Cards. Reporters have (spoiler alert) sex with Frank Underwood, get (spoiler alert) killed by Frank Underwood, get (spoiler alert) sent to prison by Frank Underwood’s minion, try to (spoiler alert) assassinate Frank Underwood, and get (spoiler alert) killed by Frank Underwood’s bodyguard. It is reputedly Donald Trump’s favorite show.
So it was a stroke of genius for the 2016 Will on the Hill Committee (Bernie McKay and The hon. Tom Davis, co-chairs), to invite Reg E. Cathey to star in this year’s production, Heavy Lies the Head. The gravel-voiced Cathey, you may recall, played Frank Underwood’s favorite barbecue chef, and also got to (spoiler alert) beat up a reporter. In this production, he plays the House Whip (here called the “Chief Whip”, implying dungeons) who has some terrible news: the Speaker of the House has resigned from “the worst job in Washington”. This news was so plausible, and Cathey delivered it so plausibly, that I resolved to check CNN as soon as I could get out of the room.
Relax. Mr. Ryan is still intact in the Speaker’s chair. But on stage, the faux-Speaker (Sen. Chris Coons, D-De.) declaimed his distaste for the job with such operatic vehemence that he resembled the real Speaker, shortly before his elevation. Cathey’s Whip pleaded with him to reconsider, but the resolute Speaker distracted him with a feigned sighting of the rare Ohio Swing Voter, and made his escape.
Thus frustrated, the Chief Whip called upon a right-wing political consultant (Tom Story) and a left-wing political consultant (Felecia Curry) to find a new Speaker with broad appeal across the political spectrum — or, failing that, anyone who would take the job.
Knowing that the Speaker need not be a member of the House, our consultants (who, like real consultants, spent most of their time insulting each other) combed through the entire population of the United States for a suitable candidates. They interviewed a gaggle of billionaires (including MSNBC’s Michael Steele and Atlantic Editor Steve Clemons, who spent their time on stage picking each other’s pockets) before they found one who would do it — for $20 billion a year, which was a little outside the price range.
They decided to consult everyday Americans, all of whom expressed their support for former Presidents — including one (Melinda Henneberger, editor in chief of Roll Call) who was so besotted with James K. Polk, our 11th President, that she quoted from his speeches every time she was asked a question. (Polk actually did serve as Speaker of the House between 1835 and 1839. He died in 1849.) They also consulted bloggers and Internet activists, and…well, don’t ask. (Think: Speaker Beyoncé.)
Finally, dismissed in disgrace from their service, our two humiliated consultants discovered their salvation at the last minute — an intern (Maggie Coons) of the former speaker, just two days on the job and now at loose ends. The young woman, unschooled in contemporary political thought and practice, imagined that service in high political office was honorable, and could bring about the improvement of the nation! Oh, did the crowd have a laugh at that development.
In fact, I must say that Ms. Coons, who is currently in the ninth grade, sparkled in the role. The Senator’s daughter was utterly convincing as an intern, and would be, I am sure, as Speaker of the House. If she chooses to, she has a promising career ahead of her on stage, or as Speaker of the House.
In general, the performance level of this production of Will on the Hill was higher than usual, perhaps because of the percentage of ringers from the media in the group. In addition to the aforementioned glitterati, I was impressed by Marla Allard (creator and host of Relatively Speaking), who played an obnoxious (is there any other kind?) event coordinator, Tom Rogan of The McLaughlin Group, who gave an elegant prologue, and the hon. Kim Darroch (British Ambassador to the United States) who helped to give the epilogue. The actors would occasionally break out into Shakespeare, which they would deliver with surprising naturalness and ease. Peter Byrne’s script was funny, even in this reader’s-theater format, and director Alan Paul certainly whipped this crew into shape. (Only joking; I’m sure he was grateful that they showed up.)
It is impossible to ignore the fact that things were a little less than bi-partisan this year. Of the twenty-one elected officials in the cast, I counted only 3 R’s. So let’s have a little love for Congressmen Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.), Ann Wagner (R.-Mo.) and Michael Turner (R-Ohio) for gameness.
So what was all this hullabaloo about? Well, mostly about funding TEXT ALIVE!, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s education program for area high school students. This particular production raised five hundred and seventeen large (enough to buy Freddie his treasured [spoiler alert] flower shop, with enough money left over to [spoiler alert] beat up a reporter), through donations, ticket sales, advertising and the like. We got to see this money put to good use, in that Westfield High School staged, before our wide eyes, V.1 of Midsummer Night’s Dream — you know the scene, where the Rude Mechanicals get to stage Pyramus and Thisbe before the Duke’s wedding party. Marty Bernier, playing Bottom playing Pyramus, and Nathan Marshak, playing Flute playing Thisbe in an excruciating falsetto, were really good at this, and afterward Lily Whitman did a fine rendition of Puck’s epilogue.
Afterward, we step out into the quotidian night, the distances between us seemingly unbridgeable, our ears ringing with Puck’s famous judgment of our mortal selves. But for ninety minutes’ compass of our time, we were all in the Bard’s warm embrace, and it seemed as though life, and even politics, could be human again.
Heavy Lies the Head, written by Peter Byrne was presented by Will on the Hill on June 13, 2016. Directed by Alan Paul . Featuring Reg E. Cathey, Tom Story, Felecia Curry, Marla Allard (Relatively Speaking), Kristen Soltis Anderson (Echelon Insights), The Hon. Suzanne Bonamici (D.-Or.), The Hon. Tony Cárdenes (D.-Ca.), Linda Chavez (Center for Equal Opportunity), Ron Christie (Christie Strategies, LLC), Steve Clemons (The Atlantic), The Hon. Gerry Connolly (D.-Va.), The Hon. Chris Coons (D.-De), Maggie Coons, Bob Cusack (The Hill), The Honorable Kim Darroch, British Ambassador to the United States, The Hon. Susan Davis (D.-Ca.), Johanna Derlega (The Hill), The Hon. Ted Deutch (D.-Fl),The Hon. Debbie Dingell (D.-Mi), The Hon. Daniel M. Donovan (R.-NY), Rich Edson (Fox News), John Feehery (The Feehery Theory), Chris Geidner (Buzzfeed), the Hon. Janice Hahn (D.-Ca.), Melinda Henneberger (Roll Call), the Hon. Hank Johnson (D.-Ga.), Rich Klein (ABC News), The Hon. Alan Lowenthal (D.-Ca.), The Hon. Carolyn Mahoney (D.-NY), The Hon. Jim McDermott (D.-Wa), Ian Millhiser (Center for American Progress), Megan Murphy (Bloomberg), Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform), The Hon. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.-DC), The Hon. Jared Polis (D.-Co.), The Hon. Charlie Rangel (D.-NY), Tom Rogan (The McLaughlin Group), Christina Sevilla (Deputy Assistant U.S. Trade Representative), The Hon. Terri A. Sewell (D.-Al), Pamela Lynne Sorenson (Pamela’s Punch), Michael Steele (MSNBC), the Hon. Dina Titus (D.-Nv.), Kelly Jane Torrance (The Weekly Standard), The Hon. Michael Turner (R.-Oh), and The Hon. Ann Wagner (R.-Mo), more or less.
Act V, scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written by William Shakespeare, produced by TEXT ALIVE!, under the guidance of English and Drama teacher Susan Pike and Teaching Artist Victoria Reinsel, featuring the students of Westfield High School (Dr. Anthony Copeland, principal), directed by Diana Witt and Wade Parker, including Ryan Kirby, Evan Kohnstam, Lily Whitman, Kailey Fox, Marty Bernier, Nathan Marshak, Kristine Lowkis, Cristian Herrara, Kelly Brown, Gopika Ramesh, Anna Krelovich and Nikolas Glover. Costume design by Molly Van Trees, Chelsie Lutz, and Pressley Johnson . Sound design by Johnson, Lutz and Molly Masilion.