Photo by Jovaka Bach
Just as December always finds theaters knee-deep in Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols, so do presidential elections spell a season of revivals of State of the Union, The Best Man and View of the Dome. If these aren’t enough, 2004 offers the bonus of that relatively new subgenre, the “Bush Bash,” which loosely translates as any play, revue or satirical entertainment that pokes fun at the president, questions the Patriot Act or clears its throat over the wisdom of pre-emptive war.
On paper at least, a Bush Bash enjoys an advantage over political stage revivals because it is new and topical; in practice, though, this usually works against it, because “topical” often has a way of becoming “haranguing.” So it was in 2000 with Eric Diamond’s Media Whores at Gallery SevenZeroSix, a high-pitched screed trashing the then-candidate Bush, and this winter’s Edge of Allegiance, Eric Rudnick’s snickering sermon for liberals at the Met Theater. At least adapter-director John Stark has tried a completely new gamble by moving Stephen Leacock’s 1912 electoral spoof, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, to the present and from Mariposa, Canada, to Pahrump, Nevada. The result, The Great Election, is now running as a visiting production at the Odyssey Theater.
Leacock’s original work of prose was a leisurely jab against the gentle hypocrisies, minor corruptions and melting allegiances of small-town life, basing its titular election on the eternal struggle between Canada’s Conservative and Liberal parties. (This was well before the New Democrats appeared on the country’s western horizon.)
“Everybody in Mariposa is either a Liberal or a Conservative or else is both,” Leacock explains a bit cryptically in his story’s introduction. Things begin with King George V’s call for the removal of a Dominion member of Parliament and devolve into a series of tawdry local machinations involving both parties’ funding of a third candidate to draw away votes from the other side. Leacock leaves little doubt that the polling-day results of his fictional parliamentary race will prove of profound consequence.
“We can see — it’s plain enough now — ” he says, “that in the great election, Canada saved the British Empire, and that Missinaba saved Canada and that the vote of the Third Concession of Tecumseh Township saved Missinaba County, and that those of us who carried the third concession — well, there’s no need to push it further.”
On a certain level Stark does a fair job translating Leacock for the stage, taking what is essentially a descriptive, observational work with few quotes, and fashioning it into a collision of dialogues and costumes; and, of course, recasting long-forgotten details of Dominion political life into the present American tense. Tories and Grits become the more familiar Republicans and Democrats; pre-WWI tariff controversies morph into Free Trade Agreement debates; and Ottawa is traded for Carson City. Perhaps most timely for American audiences, this is an election in which money is being funneled toward a third-party spoiler.
Stark mostly channels Leacock’s narration through the mouth of Judge Pepperleigh (Zale Morris), who appears early to give us the election’s background and who eventually introduces us to many of the other characters. Henry Bagshaw (Gil Ellis) is the garrulous, silver-maned rancher up for re-election; casino owner Josh Smith (Ron Bottitta) is his scaly Republican opponent (and arsonist), who tries to reinvent himself by transforming his casino into a “health resort” — while maintaining a secret saloon downstairs. The rest of the 15-member ensemble portray a town of caricatures — a holy rolling, teetotaling preacher lady (Lynn Wanlass), whose possibly gay brother (Paul Messinger) is being groomed by the main belligerents as the third-party candidate; his ex-hooker roommate (Kathleen Gati); and an Irish newspaper editor (Liam Tuohy), to name a few.
Stark is perhaps best known onstage for his long-running one-man show, An Evening With Stephen Leacock, an artistic association that might be likened to Hal Holbrook’s impersonation of Mark Twain. But his stage importation of Leacock’s story isn’t as deft as the command of his solo performances might suggest. He begins inauspiciously enough with the set dark, as an overlong tape recording plays a TV station’s backstage chatter. Apart from the fact that this “technical” opener alienates us in a show that’s not meant to alienate, the taped conversation is not easily understood and sets the evening off on a confused footing that will last 90 minutes.
Stark delivers Leacock’s fable in presentational blackouts. This means a lot of broadly played moments with characters rushing about and laughing at their own jokes. It also means a static and simplistic set that wears out its welcome before long — two giant cutouts of a cartoon donkey and elephant, with a large crucifix separating them. Although these party animals sometimes function as stage architecture, their opaque surfaces tend to flatten the meaning of Leacock’s story into a repetitive sight gag.
Jared Sacrey is credited with Election’s design, as he was a few years ago with the Stark-directed Marko the Prince, which also ran at the Odyssey. That spartan and equally opaque 2001 effort made it difficult to distinguish locale shifts in Jovanka Bach’s play, although Sacrey seems to have solved that problem here with unambiguous repositionings of chairs and tables. Unfortunately, Election shares another similarity with Marko the Prince — its absence of acting tonalities. Everything is played over the top, and everyone reaches for a drink of whiskey whenever a moment of reflection threatens the din onstage — commedia dell’arte without the arte.
Still, Anthony Sherritt’s sound design is clear and forthrightly eccentric, and there are some game efforts among the cast. Morris, another Marko the Prince veteran, is ebulliently cynical as the snide Republican judge, Pepperleigh, who presides over a town that is “a place offering Jesus or fornication.” (When he speaks, at play’s end, of the part he played in securing his party’s victory within the limits of his “official position,” we feel the backtaste of another judicially solved deadlock from four years ago.) Like Morris, Ellis turns in a nice performance as the larger-than-life pol Bagshaw, a strutting wheeler-dealer who encourages rumors of his graft in order to divert opposition votes into a doomed clean-government campaign.
The two men are attired in an anachronistic style (“Kentucky Colonel” springs to mind) and speak in dialects that suggest the South rather than the West, but that confusion isn’t unusual in an evening of mixed messages. Although Morris is also credited with costume design, the program notes mention two assistant costume designers, while Stark’s bio praises Wanlass for having “selected her own costumes for her part.” Apparently the other actors took the hint, since their wardrobes wander all over the map from skinny-tied ’60s to funereal Mexican to Barbary Coast dance line.
In the end, The Great Election’s main problem is that it is an almost phonetic translation of time and borders that doesn’t really serve Leacock’s laconic vision of the political fault lines dividing rural towns, nor does it tell us something that we don’t already suspect about our own lack of interest in civic democracy.
For that matter, some of the story’s details are a little baffling. Why would Bagshaw, a state senator, be implicated in suspicious town zoning changes? How, as it’s stated here, is it possible for partisan poll watchers to discern election-day voting trends and then spread rumors to reverse these tides — twice? If American politics are largely mysterious to the public, here they make no sense at all.
THE GREAT ELECTION | Adapted by JOHN STARK from Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town | At the ODYSSEY THEATER, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. | (310) 477-2055 | Through August 22