Presidential pomp and circumstance has always been a surreal spectacle. How bizarre was it when "Dubya" searched under his Oval Office desk looking for lost weapons of mass destruction in a self-satirizing skit for a press gala? Of course, the Clinton years provided their fair share of sideshows in the Oval Office, too. Our current political climate contains enough levels of dramatic irony to plunge even the most casual political observer into the spinning vortex of partisan rancor and the warped rhetoric of media manipulation. Who needs theatrical send-ups of political life when our real-life political theater sends itself up?
In the Brick Theater's revival of Richard Foreman's 1988 play, Symphony of Rats, directed by Ian W. Hill, the president gets sucked down the rabbit—or, in this case, rat—hole of paranoid schizophrenia. The media have swarmed around the president's sex life like a pack of frenzied rodents scavenging in a back alley for a piece of garbage to gnaw on. The president cracks up. He imagines he's communicating with voices from outer space. As his delusions of grandeur grow, he believes he's been beamed to another planet where angels, aliens, dancing rats, and comic-book monsters run amok. Each delusional episode blurs together into a jumbled pastiche of sci-fi freaks and screwball comedy that portrays the president's increasingly manic imagination.
Alyssa Simon, playing the First Lady with the "reptilian smile," however, deserves special mention among a crowded supporting cast for the subtlety with which she makes a "straight" character appear more strange and sinister than the fantasy creatures that too often appeared like benign waxwork figures around her.
Many of the vignettes are visually arresting. The president—played by a hyperactive and often cross-eyed Hill—hears voices that tell him he's "lost his swing." As golf balls pop out from between his beret-wearing mistress's wide-open legs, he crushes them underfoot as if they were eggs. In another vignette, he watches in terror as his symbolic mistress, the Statute of Liberty, gets spread on the dinner table and raped.
The most powerful man in the world suddenly has his mojo go awry and his god-like abilities desert him. A paraplegic asks to be miraculously healed, only to rise up and turn into a towering demon with claw-like arms.
The president gets replaced by a cardboard cutout with a happy-face balloon for its head. He whisks scissors from his pocket and becomes a barber as the inner self seeks vengeance on the outer "suit." The suspense created by simply flashing a sharp object in the same visual space as a balloon is palpable.
Like a bad acid trip, events accelerate as they become more detached from reality. A character spoofing a film noir detective comes to investigate the president, the president boogies at a disco crowded with mindless ingénues, and he plays a life-size game of whack-a-mole.
Eventually, though, the incoherence and over-stimulation of these lavish spectacles get somewhat tiresome. Endless sight gags can hold our attention only so long, and one gets the sense that each outlandish scenario, funky costume, or entrancing prop exists merely to one-up the zaniness of the last. The production shares the aesthetic of the music video, the metaphysic of the short attention span, and the psychology of media saturation. Its first principle is "I think, therefore I—oh, heck, what's on the next channel?" Any sense of narrative or momentum liquefies into a sensual kaleidoscope of ever-changing sexual cartoons.
Because the president in this production is portrayed generically, any satire in the original production has been blunted, with no attempt to update the jokes to fit our current commander in chief. The play, therefore, is not so much about politics as it is about the thin line between sanity and schizophrenia.
In fact, the production embodies many of the dramaturgical ideals of that true paranoid schizophrenic, Antonin Artaud. At one point, an exasperated president, slouching behind his desk far upstage, asks the audience if anyone wants a glass of water, then realizes he can't give somebody one because he's supposedly on TV and not in a theater. Conversely, a few minutes later the president strides right up to the audience during an intense monologue where some of Hill's sweat dripped onto my notepad. Like Artaud's proposed "theater of cruelty," we experience an orchestration of pure theatricality that unfetters itself from narrative conventions and textual supremacy in favor of a savage attack upon our senses.
My own tastes, however, incline toward spectacles where the visual slapstick and visceral stunts hang on—or at least by—a thread of narrative. Films such as Fight Club and Schizopolis, for example, do a better job at conveying the schizophrenic nature of reality because they are able to represent the funhouse of a character's mental life without the story itself getting lost in it.