A scene from the Broadway production of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”
Photo by Joan Marcus
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Written and directed by Alex Timbers
Music by Michael Friedman
Performed by Les Freres Corbusiers
Bernard Jacobs Theatre
(See video clip below.)
I’d never seen the work of the young downtown theater company Les Freres Corbusiers before this year. Now, after seeing their new musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” I’m kicking myself. I wish I’d seen all nine of their previous shows, if they were anywhere near this good. Their program bio describes Les Freres Corbusiers as “a NY-based downtown company devoted to aggressively visceral theatre combining historical revisionism, sophomoric humor and rigorous academic research. The company is committed to the notion of a Populist Theatre that draws on prevailing tastes and comedic sensibilities to speak directly to the mainstream audience routinely ignored by the American Theatre. Les Freres rejects the shy music, seamless dramaturgy and muted performance style of the 20th century in favor of the anarchic, the rude, the juvenile, the spectacle.” How’s that for a manifesto? As a description of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which was a huge hit at the Public Theater earlier this year and just re-opened on Broadway, it’s 100 percent accurate.
The visceral impact begins when you walk in the door. Scenic designer Donyale Werle has transformed that space wall to wall into some cross between a Wild West saloon and a crazy American history-themed nightclub, with cool enough pre-show music that I was constantly checking Shazam to see what was playing. Smartly written and directed by Les Freres’ artistic director, Alex Timbers, with super-catchy emo-rock score by Michael Friedman, the show is indeed a historical pageant about the former U.S. president, a renowned yahoo populist who rode into the White House on a flood of anti-government resentment (sound familiar?). But it’s delivered in a totally burlesque, history-for-dummies style: hyped-up, anachronistic, no-joke-too-dumb, ADD to the max, stuffed full of music played by an onstage rock band, some songs lasting 30 seconds. It’s “Saturday Night Live” meets “Spring Awakening” on speed. It’s the kind of thing I might usually abhor. And yet from the moment the cast hit the stage (led by the strapping, charismatic Benjamin Walker in the star-making title role) “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” captivated me, entertained me, enlightened me, and made me think.
Although it seems to be recycling lowest common denominator humor, that’s a kind of pose – its aggressively relentless barrage of cultural references (from Michel Foucault to Valtrex) and edgy joking reminded me less of bad improv comedy than of smart rock bands like Of Montreal. For instance, there are very few political characters who aren’t portrayed as gay at one point or another, from George Washington to AJ himself. If they were just going for a politically incorrect edginess (gay-as-automatic-laugh-line), it would be grating if not insulting. Instead, it’s something more subversive. The show takes the all-too-current idea of Washington politics being run by a fey “East Coast elite” vs. the macho swagger of outsiders (whether it be frontiersman Jackson or wild-eyed Tea Partiers) to an aggressive extreme, casting the cultural clash in contemporary playground terms where “That’s so gay” is the ultimate supercilious putdown. It’s breathtaking to watch early American legends like Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams played this way, especially by Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Bryce Pinkham, and Jeff Hiller, fearlessly outrageous young actors all.
The show is an eye-opening primer on the crazy chaos of early American history. If I ever learned it, I hadn’t remembered that Jackson created the Democratic Party, outraged by the elitism of Republicans, whom this show’s AJ disparages as “croquet-playing cock-gobblers.” Same goes with the details of the 1824 election: Jackson won the popular and electoral votes in a three-way race but in the absence of a majority John Quincy Adams was chosen as president by Congress. I’d been associating Jackson with George W. Bush but in this president-as-rockstar retelling, he uncannily conjures Obama at times. But the show doesn’t take one point of view or settle for easy parallels. The “serious” content of the piece is in constant contrast to the “silly” style, which I love.
Much of the purely historical information is conveyed in academic lecture-style by a character called The Storyteller, a disabled woman who gets around in a motorized wheelchair – until Jackson hauls off and shoots her in the neck. (Originally played by Colleen Werthmann, the role has been taken over on Broadway by Kristine Nielsen, best-known for her delirious comic performances in plays by Christopher Durang.) But that’s not the end of her: she comes back from the dead with fluffy angel wings and a dime-store tiara to exact history’s revenge by making sure we remember a key aspect of Jackson’s legacy: however much he expanded the boundaries and sovereignty of the United States, he did more to displace and destroy the Native American population than anyone else in American history.
Underneath its raucous college-skit veneer, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is a canny theatrical essay on populism and democracy. If populism means giving the people what they want… well, which “people” are we talking about? What if there are conflicts between different sectors of “the people”? What if “the people” are ignorant, self-serving, and/or racist? These questions couldn’t be more pertinent in this election year.
Michael Friedman’s music rocks, and Danny Mefford’s choreography is exceptional. I admired the incredible energy of each individual performer, including the musicians, from Benjamin Walker on down to the actress who plays the dead body after everyone else leaves the stage after curtain call. Most of all, I’m totally impressed with Alex Timbers. His staging is tremendous, and the play itself continues to dazzle me with its daredevil juxtaposition of classic American contradictions – generosity and selfishness, smarts and stupidity, victim and bully. Populism, yeah yeah! I’m not the kind of guy who sees shows repeatedly, but I’ve seen “Bloody Bloody” three times already, and probably not for the last time. There’s a heat and energy to the show that’s just delicious to have blasting at you again and again.