Monday, November 5, 2012

It's Not Easy ReLiving Bush

I do my best each time in my reviews, though I'm not always crazy about the result.  Some pieces I do particularly like, and this is one of them--it appears in this weeks NC Journal.  I've probably mucked it up with some additions, but it has a proper Election Day theme.  I did bury the lead, however, which is VOTE!

Dusty and the Big Bad World, now on stage at Redwood Curtain, is loosely based on real events: the 2005 decision by PBS not to air a segment of a children’s program (Postcards From Buster) dealing with lesbian parents, under pressure from the Bush administration. Playwright Cusi Cram, who worked for an associated program (Arthur) then, engages in some score-settling, puts words of one actual participant in another’s mouth, and inaccurately impugns the motive of the PBS president at the time (who admittedly is an old acquaintance of mine.) But on the whole, Cram uses the situation to create an independent, thoughtful and lively work of theatre that entertains ideas as well as the audience.

  First we meet 11-year-old Lizzie Goldberg-Jones (played by Alissa Barthel) who talks into her video camera about why she should win the contest to be on the animated PBS children’s show Dusty, along with her family: because her little brother really likes it, and “TV is important.” It might distract him from being teased about their “two dads.”  (The TV is important line turns out to be a major theme--not an unexpected one from a writer who is still involved in television.  Another biographical tell: Cusi Cram was herself a precocious and cute child TV star.)

Next there’s Marianne Fitzgibbons (Dianne Zuleger,) a sunny but formidable presence who tells us at length how much she loves her new job, which turns out to be Secretary of Education. Her cheery demeanor towards her troubled secretary Karen (Carrie Hudson) is edged with menace, but the doubleness of her response to Karen--apparently real feeling along with shrewd coldness--goes a long way towards making the character of Marianne more than caricature.   

Marianne—whose zealous fundamentalism becomes increasingly clear-- already has her sights on the Dusty episode resulting from Lizzie winning the contest. She means to squelch it, and to cancel the series entirely. This puts the show’s producer and self-described paranoid liberal Nathan Friedman (Nathan Emmons) on the bubble, along with the show’s protective creator, Jessica Fields (Tisha Sloan.)

Playwright Cram gives these characters dimension and individuality, and this superb group of actors gives them even more. Dianne Zuleger inhabits her role to a truly scary extent. Nathan Emmons and Tisha Sloan are immediately convincing, and Alissa Barthel provides the not entirely innocent burst of light that redeems the adult-made muddle. But it’s Karen who becomes the moral center of the play (as a troubled child she wore green socks everyday to remind her of Kermit the Frog and his song, It's Not Easy Being Green.)   Carrie Hudson’s compelling performance takes us on that journey.

    How all this is a comedy with a partially happy ending is hard to describe. Some invented aspects of the plot are weak, but the script is witty and emotional, with lots of ideas flashing amidst the politics, confessions and intrigue. The characters are believable and memorable.  Marianne is an especially impressive character, especially as Zuleger plays her.  She's almost archetypal at times, and also very much like some of the political and religious fundamentalists in and around the Bush administration I've met--that combination of ingredients that people like me find unfathomable.

Reliving that Bush atmosphere wasn't easy, even for the length of this play.  But it is well-timed to motivate the one action we can take to prevent its second coming.  (Hint: vote! Save Big Bird!)

This play had its premiere performance in Denver, where the director apparently hyped it up with elements of farce. However,  I felt Redwood Curtain director Jyl Hewston made the right choice of tone—subtle and straightforward, letting the play and the actors carry the evening.

Scenic design is by Daniel Nyiri, lighting by Michael Burkhart, costumes by Laura Rhinehart, sound by Jon Tunney. Dusty and the Big Bad World plays weekends at Redwood Curtain through November 17.

   Dusty and the Big Bad World is one of three plays on North Coast stages this fall based on real events, involving similar issues. Eureka High just closed The Laramie Project, about the 1998 torture and death of a gay student that led to the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009. The third play was 8, about Proposition 8 and marriage equality, presented by HSU Theatre, Film & Dance to a big crowd at the Van Duzer on Thursday.  There was a lengthy discussion afterwards as well. These plays have at least one real world message in common: vote.

Apropos of Dusty and this message, a real world girl very much in the same situation as Lizzie's little brother in the play--bullied by classmates because of her "two dads"-- wrote a letter to President Obama asking what she should do.  This is President Obama's reply ( and recall that he was raised by a single mother along with grandparents):

"In America, no two families look the same. We celebrate this diversity. And we recognize that whether you have two dads or one mom what matters above all is the love we show one another. You are very fortunate to have two parents who care deeply for you. They are lucky to have such an exceptional daughter in you. Our differences unite us. You and I are blessed to live in a country where we are born equal no matter what we look like on the outside, where we grow up, or who our parents are. A good rule is to treat others the way you hope they will treat you. Remind your friends at school about this rule if they say something that hurts your feelings."

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