The Media is the Message

With meta-news programs in the vein of The Daily Show and satirical press a la The Onion as much a part of the media establishment as they are its subversive critics, conversations about the state of American media are integral to political discourse. The years of the Bush Administration saw a number of political protests in the form of downtown theater productions, many of which tackled the subject of partisan press. Complaints of media bias, from people on all sides of the political spectrum, are as commonplace as media consumption; channeling that frustration into suave, startling theater is considerably more rare. The Spin Cycle, a collection of five thematically linked short plays by Jerrod Bogard, falls squarely into the category of plays that do exactly that. The five directors of each of the plays deftly locate terrific comedy in each of Bogard’s scripts. The program opens with Copper Green, a short play directed by Anthony Augello, in which a tourist family eyes the statue of liberty from the Staten Island Ferry while an Arab man looks on. A less sophisticated play would include bigotry and outright conflict; Copper Green merely presents quiet tension in the characters’ near-interactions. It’s an appropriate opening to each of the subsequent plays, which tend more toward critical observation than judgmental condemnation.

Copper Green is followed by Hedge, which features a pair of Hollywood devotees bemoaning the paparazzi even as they obsess over celebrity, irony earnestly embodied by Melissa Johnson and Lauren Bahlman, and Just Your Average G.I. Joe, in which a war vet explains the job of being a soldier. The short solo performance piece, which Bogard performs, has the most meandering scope of the plays that comprise The Spin Cycle. With direction by Kristin Skye Hoffman, the likable soldier's varied perspectives are appropriately grounded.

First Base Coach the penultimate show of the program, is the least explicitly related to media or politics, although it has a lot to do with innocence: a pair of school children, played by adult actors Hoffman and Ben Newman, figure out the ins and outs of rounding the bases. Adults playing children, especially children learning to practice the art of flirtation, risks coming across as either overly precious or uncomfortably inappropriate; First Base Coach does neither. Bogard’s script works in pop cultural references that are both wholly organic and wonderfully silly. Costume Consultant Hired Guns makes its best contribution to the evening by not putting Hoffman in pigtails, the most obnoxiously routine way of broadcasting a character’s little-girlness. This character is not a pigtailed sort of little girl, and Hoffman and Newman deserve a lot of credit for lending their characters heaps of specificity rather than playing vague children. The result is a touching, extremely funny scene that is a pleasure to watch.

Throughout the program, each of the short plays are threaded together with clips of segments from The Spin Cycle, a TV program styled after Fox news shows, hosted by the Bill O’Reilly-esque Dan Dillinger. Played with bombastic showmanship by Justin Ness, the Dillenger segments, directed by Brian Bernhard, succinctly link the short plays while demonstrating Bogard’s point about the tenuous relationship between partisan press and political truths.

Jerome Via Satellite, the final play of the evening, unites the mediated TV segments with live performance. The play depicts an episode of the news program as it unfolds live, with satellite feeds from an American living room and a U.S. military base in Iraq; the TV show purports to unite an overseas soldier with his family on the home front. Early on, it becomes clear that the news program is influencing the story as much as reporting it. As the play progresses, the full extent of the media manipulation becomes clear as the evening of plays climaxes with its strongest indictment of mediated politics. The large cast conveys a startling, powerful eeriness that is undone only when the script spells out exactly what has transpired.

Ness’ direction of the final piece renders the situation clear; exposition that occurs after unsettling revelations is not only unneeded but, in attempting to wrap up the story, weakens the effects of the evening’s most climactic moments. Until then, the plays do an impressive job of assuming a smart, savvy audience. Anyone interested in the intersections of pop culture and politics, and the media spin of it, will be happy to be part of it.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post