One doesn’t have to look very hard to encounter political gestures that offend. To many Angelenos of Mexican descent, for example, building a $21.6 billion “wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border is the political equivalent of flipping the bird. Same goes for Muslim Americans and Trump's travel bans. But the uncontested mother of them all is the infamous salute at the center of The Offending Gesture, experimental playwright Mac Wellman’s wickedly clever, 2016 musical burlesque of authoritarian narcissism and control.
Currently receiving its West Coast premiere by Son of Semele Ensemble in director Edgar Landa’s riotously pitched production, Wellman’s densely poetic political satire begins with one of the more risibly absurd-but-true episodes of World War II.
In 1941, as Germany and Finland were finalizing plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union, Nazi agents learned that a Finnish pharmaceutical manufacturer named Tor Borg had trained his dog, Jackie, to lift its paw in a Nazi salute whenever Borg uttered the command “Heil Hitler.” The Germans were not amused. Borg was summoned for questioning, and the case went all the way up to the Chancellery in Berlin before being dropped for lack of credible evidence. Borg’s profitable German contracts were saved, and the Nazi surprise attack went off without a hitch.
In an inspired coup, Wellman imagines how the Borg investigation played out among Finnish officials and Nazi apparatchiks by presenting the action in the fractured logic and deliciously off-kilter doggy diction of its uncomprehending pooches. Complete with a Greek chorus quartet of musician-actors called the Mooncats (Rachel Appelbaum, Kyla Ledes, Flor San Roman and Kate Williams Grabau), who perform Wellman’s interstitial commentary to composer Brenda Varda’s Weill-esque melodies, the evening falls somewhere between Weimar cabaret and a perverse Seussian children’s fable.
Anastasia Coon is affably goofy as the floppy-eared and carefree Jackie, but it is Ashley Steed as the Nazis’ most infamous German Shepherd, Blondi, and her unconditionally loving efforts to please the nonsensical whims of her master Adolf Hitler (Melina Bielefelt), that anchor The Offending Gesture’s caricature of the canine political culture that Wellman sees as perpetuating America’s costly Middle East misadventure.
“Working toward the leader is what you do when you do not quite know what the leader would have you do. But because it is part of your job,” Blondi explains to Jackie in what may be one of the most clear-eyed analyses offered yet for the chaotic inner workings and early policy misfires of the Trump Administration.
As the play progresses, Wellman slyly shifts from an absurdist debate on the distinction between the natures of dog and human to focus on the most unpleasant gestures: the legacy of the 1920s British Mandate that gave the world the unworkable modern state of Iraq. And while Landa's arch staging and designer Stephanie Petagno’s emblematically pointed costumes leave little room for ambiguity about which current leader of the free world the play is lampooning, the most remarkable aspect of the production may be its timely reminder of just how vital a force for political resistance live theater continues to be.
Son of Semele Ensemble Theatre, 3301 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; through April 9. sonofsemele.org.