It’s midday, and I’m sitting in a booth at Victor’s restaurant in Hollywood with a couple of suspicious-looking characters who are viciously attacking the president — with utensils and condiments. One of the guys goes by Hieronymus Bang. So does the other guy. HB-1, the leader, is wearing large, dark sunglasses, a bushy (fake) beard, a poncho and a peace-emblem necklace. HB-2 has a white mask with eyes and ears outlined in red mascara. While HB-1 stabs the commander in chief in the eye with a fork and knife, HB-2 pours salt in his wounds. Both pause, on occasion, to pull out prop cigars. Sitting between them is somebody — a woman, I’d guess, from her voice — entirely wrapped inside a sleeping bag with two large eyes attached to tentacles at the top and a lightning-bolt mouth sewn on slightly below. Diners watch, dumbfounded.
Of course, the assault is symbolic — the violence is being perpetrated on a George W. mask that the photographer had brought for a prop and stretched across a dinner plate. The perpetrators are members of the guerrilla-theater troupe Imagination Liberation Front (ILF), seminotorious now for their underground play “I’m Going to Kill the President!” — A Federal Offense, currently running at secret locations throughout the city.
As vexing as I find President Bush, his character, his policies and his actions, the mutilation of the rubber mask unnerved me — a bit of shock theater that crossed into hatred. Yet with the offense came a jolt of understanding about where I really stood. That’s what good clowns offer, and such visceral awareness is what Imagination Liberation Front stirs, like no other theater in the city.
ILF has no desire to kill the president, nor is any such desire seriously expressed in the troupe’s play. If it were, they’d be in a federal detention center by now. (However, they are often raided by local law enforcement.)
To get to the show, you have to call a hot line, which provides a secret meeting place. Upon arriving at that location, you can expect to be asked, on videotape, if you’re part of any law-enforcement organization — “for our own protection,” explains HB-1 (the guy with the beard). You’ll then be escorted to a performance space and given a program in which all of the actors’ and writers’ names have been redacted “for security reasons.”
The performance itself is a sloppy, sweet and funny skit about a young woman, Fifi, whom a revolutionary named Skip meets at an identity fair where Fifi is looking to buy an identity. Skip is still mourning the death of his girlfriend, Bess, who handcuffed herself to a senator and blew herself up in a Washington restaurant. Skip and Fifi undergo a Candide-like journey across the political landscape, where both are parodied with affection. Fifi’s loyalties are torn between Skip and The Man (a representative of generic authority), while Massive Media (the sleeping bag with the big eyes) tries to lure Fifi into complacency.
Somewhere in all this, an actor asks to borrow a cell phone from the audience. After they get the White House operator on the line, the audience is asked to shout, in unison, the title of the play — a threat that is, as you know, a federal offense, and a threat for which everyone in the room could be held accountable. Just like the mutilation of the rubber mask, it provokes the giddy, sickening feeling of crossing the border from satire to nihilism.
On the night I attended, shortly after Fifi’s story resumed, polite uniformed LAPD officers entered the theater, explaining that there had been a threat made on the president’s life from a cell phone at this location. They checked everyone’s ID, took notes, and escorted the owner of the cell phone, and the actors, into a backroom. One woman in the audience called her lawyer. Another caller said, “Hi, honey, look, there’s a situation here right now . . .” Finally, the police escorted the rest of the audience out of the building and into the night.
I saw this show last year, long before the disclosure that the NSA was logging every phone call made in the past five years, ostensibly to weed out terrorists, but really to weed out dissenters and journalists. The beauty and horror of the performance are in the way it smudges the distinguishing line between reality and fiction by making you look over your shoulder on the way to the theater, to see if you’re being followed by a government agent. It transforms theater attendance into a clandestine activity, as was the case in the former communist countries we used to fear for this very reason. It makes us question on a gut level whether or not we still live in a country that gives us the freedom to see such a play.
Hieronymus Bang–1 says he hails from Austin, Texas. After 9/11, and what he calls the media’s “lockstep support of the president,” he tried to get “I’m Going to Kill the President!” produced in New York, where nobody would touch it. Two years later, he finally secured a venue called One Arm Red in Brooklyn. The opening was covered with both amazement and sarcasm by Fox News. After an otherwise warm reception by the New York press, P.S. 122 invited the troupe to perform in Manhattan during the Republican National Convention, where ILF offered free tickets to Republican delegates with ID.
“A few actually came,” HB-1 says, “and none of them left during the performance.
“It’s dangerous to do this show. We’ve gotten death threats, especially during the convention.”
I ask who wrote the show, or if it was developed collectively.
“It was written by the American people,” HB-1 replies.
After a successful L.A. run in 2005, and a tour earlier this year across blue states, the progressive broadcast media still won’t cover ILF, despite appeals to Amy Goodman and Pacifica Radio.
“I think they’re terrified of jeopardizing their FCC license,” explains HB-1. “People on the left assume we’re working for the right. Such paranoia. ‘You’re here to make the left look bad,’ they say. As if the left needs any help.”
HB-1 also says that ILF was raided in three cities during its blue-state tour — Kalamazoo, Michigan; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Madison, Wisconsin.
“We got taken to some police headquarters,” he says. “We sat in a cell overnight. They had nothing.” (For a charge of threatening the president’s life to stick, that charge must be deemed “serious.”)
HB-1 was particularly moved by the support of Midwestern audiences when the actors were arrested. “These politically active college students — 5-foot girls from Minnesota — they linked elbows as [the police] were putting us into the van. In New York and L.A., nobody stood up for us that way.
“It made me nostalgic for the ’60s,” HB-1 remarks.
“Were you even around in the ’60s?” I ask.
“During the tour, we were infiltrated by an undercover cop,” HB-1 adds. “He asked a lot of questions, engaged in inappropriate behavior: gay baiting, making moves on the women. A loose cannon. He was a very bad undercover cop. We dropped him off in a bus station in Chicago, but not before giving him a lap dance from a hairy potbellied man in a Speedo.”
“But he went along with it,” HB-2 pipes in. “Even pretended to be drunk.”
“Is any of this actually true?” I ask.
“What I said about the Midwest audiences,” HB-1 answers in a rare moment of seriousness. “That actually happened.”
ILF want to play in L.A. until they can raise enough money to do a red-state tour. In the meantime, they’re doing workshops in political theater for children in Echo Park and developing a new work in which they hope to team up with other theaters across the country to stage simultaneous food fights in Blockbuster video stores and fast-food outlets.
“Not to mention our public-nudity campaign,” adds HB-1.
“Can you elaborate?”
“I think that’s self-explanatory.”
“I’M GOING TO KILL THE PRESIDENT!” — A FEDERAL OFFENSE | Written by THE AMERICAN PEOPLE and directed by HIERONYMUS BANG | At various locations | Through June 25 | (888) 475-6181