Barbs and Gags

Guess what? If you fill an audience with middle-aged New York International Fringe Festival theatergoers and perform a vaudeville show that openly lambastes the state of American politics under the Bush administration, you'll get quite a few sympathetic laughs. Uncle Sam's Satiric Spectacular: On Democracy and Other Fictions Featuring Patriotism Acts and Blue Songs From a Red State is a grab bag of skits and songs as grossly obvious as its name. What's more, the promise of satire is unevenly delivered: the acts range from the formulaically feminist ("Quick Change") to the ridiculously emotional ("Ballad of Johnny Cuba") to the downright absurd ("X, a Cute Knife Throwing Sensation"). True to form, the production is rife with sight gags and witticisms, but as a whole it lacks a coherent perspective that would make its mere societal complaints seem like social protest.

Uncle Sam's begins well enough with a promising ensemble song, "American Way," that giddily bemoans the exportation of "democracy" in the form of reality-TV shows and grande chai lattes. Uncle Sam (Ian Frank), the show's uncharismatic master of ceremonies, ushers us from one skit to the next with jokes that fail to hit their mark. He's confusingly unaware that the show is being performed in the present day and has to be told that the stars he is introducing are all dead.

As a conceit, having a time-warped Uncle Sam as an M.C. is all well and good, until the show itself begins to unravel because the "management" is unhappy with the acts' liberal-minded tone. Uncle Sam is fired midshow, and yet the acts, including one against vegan hypocrisy and another for gay marriage, continue. One trait that separates vaudeville actors from traditional theater actors is their acknowledgment of the form in which they're performing. In vaudeville, which gave rise to the variety show and arguably to stand-up and improv comedy, there is almost never a fourth wall.

And yet during the course of this show the demarcation between vaudeville-style acting and traditional acting becomes increasingly unclear. Uncle Sam, for instance, never drops character, but many of the performers

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