On “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”

MERRY CHRISTMAS everybody!  After watching my grandkids gleefully opening their presents, I have a few hours to complete the following before the ham and pierogies are ready.

Of the five plays I saw in New York earlier this month, three are either already closed, or about to be:  This one, The Language Archive, and Break of Noon.  For whatever reason, they have not found enthusiastic enough audiences to merit extending the run or to fulfill producers’ expectations.

An occasional playwright myself, I usually feel some moral obligation to include one or two productions of new scripts on my trip agenda:  something small, in preview, unreviewed, or something with an intriguing idea behind it even if not favorably reviewed.   Off-Broadway straight comedies and dramas are increasingly rare, given the expense of even low budget production, and if they’re any good, I prefer to see them when they’re small and focused, before they make the obligatory move uptown.  And I like to think I can learn a lot from watching efforts that are not necessarily commercially viable.  They can be more personal and intimate, delivering their impact without the razzamatazz so many New York audiences now seem to require.  Sometimes I am lucky enough to find a real gem, sometimes I stumble on a genuine disaster.  But art is always a risk, and at the very least an unheralded play is an exciting adventure.  I’ll deal with two next time.

If I were to be completely honest, I picked Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson mainly because it was one of the few productions available on a Monday night.  Also in its favor: It had come up to Broadway from downtown at the Public, always worthy of respect, and it had been developed with Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group.  I’ve also been intrigued for a long time by the historical figure of Andrew Jackson, even while knowing little about him other than that he won the Battle of New Orleans (thanks to Jimmy Driftwood and Johnny Horton) and screwed over the Indians.  He was also a political crook, much beloved by the voters.  I was completely captivated by the idea of presenting him as a contemporary pop idol, just what he was at the time, suggesting all kinds of parallels to where we find ourselves in 2010.  In my mind, playwright Alex Timbers and composer Michael Friedman deserved ample credit for originality, and I was anxious to give it a fair try.  But I confess I was not looking forward to the music.  I was right on both counts.

I walked into the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater (formerly the Royale) to find the whole place bathed in a festive red, which I initially thought might be in celebration of the season.  But no, it quickly took on the context of blood, a thematic trope (Is that the right word?) running throughout the show.  The onstage musicians started to play without fanfare, and Benjamin Walker (Jackson) emerged, stomped down to the edge of the stage and screamed at the top of his lungs.  “Are you *#@%* ready for this?”  I have to tell you, my immediate internal answer was “No!”  Oh, I know all about the theatre of confrontation, and Brechtian didacticism and all that.  But this was not confrontation.  This was a full frontal assault on the audience.   Younger folks than I might be used to this kind of thing in punk rock concerts, but frankly, it passed my limits of tolerance.  The music, is “emo,” short for emopop or emocore.  I know nothing about it, folks, other than it riffs off of “emotion,” is confrontational by nature, and evidently enjoys some popularity.  I don’t care to learn more at this point.  This kind of music may be a sign of our age, placing such high value on challenging, on cutting to the core of our basic animal instincts, on climbing over bodies to the top, on making and getting the most, no matter the “moral” cost.  Maybe there is some value in such exposure.  But the evening’s “musical” assault unfortunately turned the whole play into an intolerably loud grunge experience.  Not my thing.  The play itself does indeed delve into “some serious shit,” as we are forewarned.  That’s fine.  I was eager to learn and be entertained.  But there must be another way.  I may even go read a book about Jackson now.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson will survive to the end of the year, and close on January 2, 2011.  God bless!

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3 Responses to On “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”

  1. Thanks for the warnings, not that this show will be on the boards long enough to pose a danger to our ears or IQs. Most of the theatre audiences I sit among are not young, so I wonder what marketing strategy the producers had in mind with the show’s aggressive, rock-concert evoking noise and spectacle. I wonder too if New Jersey blue-hair suburbanites rocked out at the matinees. Many of us prefer a theatre of confrontation that challenges us with ideas, not decibels.

  2. Ann says:

    Thanks for posting this. I had been very drawn to this show by the reviews and the pictures in the New Yorker and had been idly thinking of taking the Starlight Express to see this show, but I really don’t want to see it anymore, for the reasons you stated. Thanks for saving me from a bad trip!

  3. Tim Hulsey says:

    I imagine Studio Theatre in DC will do this show around summer 2012. It looks and sounds like entertaining undergraduate fare, on the order of REEFER MADNESS or EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL.

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