a sickness at the heart of In the Mood. This malady makes
its victim feel so energetic he doesnt need sleep; so
potent he can and must taste every carnal pleasure; so extravagant
that only the best and priciest of everything will do. It
will, from time to time, plunge him into a thick, ugly despair.
And it makes him blind and deaf to the needs of other people,
from common courtesy to compassion. But when its got
him in its spell, he truly believes he can save the world.
never stated in the script that Neil Workman suffers from
bipolar disorder, though the program notes make it clearand
any viewer whos been close to someone with that illness
will recognize Christopher Lanes spot-on, award-worthy
thats not the real sickness here. The real sickness
is male power.
on in Irene Wurtzels memory play, Jennifer, Neils
wife of 23 years, mentions something shes read: Every
time a man encounters another man on the street, his first
thought is, Can I take him? Her husband, not to mention his
boss and father figure, Charles, assures her its true.
And theyve had plenty of experience in that recurrent
squared circle: Neil is undersecretary of state, and Charles
measures himself daily against the portraits of Kissinger,
Dulles, and other legendary diplomats lining the walls of
has found room on those walls for a painting by Jennifer,
a talented artist who, since the couples arrival in
Washington, has made great strides in her career. He doesnt
understand the painting, of course, but he buys it because
hes a good friend and a decent fellow. But decent
isnt enough for Neil, who, after a diplomatic visit
to a revolution-torn African country, makes it his mission
to do more than smile at the locals. He writes them a new
constitution; he overstays his assigned time. He defies Charles
and accuses his wife of sleeping with the boss. Soon his grandiose
swagger shifts into obsessionhe watches the same Skins
game over and over, grunting in the glory of his teams
successesand then into black clouds of despair.
helps pull him out of the arms of the demon, but that particular
monster always seems poised to make another house call. And
when Charles cant go to the Middle East for an important
conference, guess who starts visualizing world peaceand
emotionally ambitious, deeply moving production, under Jim
Petosa, gets so much right that its almost petty to
complain about the wrong bits. But lets, anyway: Some
of the action takes place at stage-floor level, some on balconies
to the left and right. (Theres a neat moment, early
on, when Neil nimbly goes literally over the edge, sliding
down the balcony rail to be with his wife.) But when the action
plays on both levels, as in one pivotal scene that requires
Jennifer to talk with people on both balconies, the distance
can be awkward to the point of unintentional comedy.
although her marital situation makes us feel for Jenniferwho
seems to do the right thing, again and again, to no availMaryBeth
Wises resolutely confident portrayal lacks variation.
Stuck in a smeared painters smock and dowdy purple pants
and shirt for the whole of the play, she often seems stuck
in a single mood as well, spending much of the second half
with the same frown of consternation on her face. The Workmans
are one of those brainy, witty couples, but a bit more warmth
might give Jennifer some depth.
has written surprisingly complex supporting characters, in
particular the couples college-age son (Tim Spears)
and Neils widowed mother (Halo Wines), either of whose
relationships with Neil might have anchored an equally compelling
play in itself. Theresa Barbato is effective as Neils
assistant, and Leo Erickson compelling as Charlesa fellow
who speaks far more softly than Neil while feeling no need
to swing a big stick all the time.
brings us to Neil: handsome, intelligent (if a bit enamored
of facts as poker chips), and apparently appealing to Jennifer.
I didnt like the Tom Cruise model of manhood even before
couches started getting trampled, so maybe Im the wrong
judge of this sort of thing. But its a little hard to
believe that Neils breakdown came so suddenly, when
manic superiority seems so firmly rooted in his personality.
Although Jennifer says she and Neils mother are close,
shes shocked to hear from her that his father was also
mentally ill and that his death may have been a suicide. Nor
is it clear how often Neils manly swagger has turned
into a Santinilike bullying of his son, as it does near the
end of the play.
public service announcement is in order: Bipolar disorder
and testosterone-transmitted narcissism arent the same
thing. I can tell you from experience that not all bipolar
people are as difficult to live with as Neil seems to be.
In the Mood never becomes a disease-of-the-week melodrama,
and in any case it doesnt exist to make a statement,
but rather to ask an intriguing question: What happens when
you pour one part Great White Hunter and one part manic-depressive
into Washingtonand shake?
were in that inside-the-Beltway mood, why not examine
a play in which power corrupts not only absolutely, but in
Garsons MacBird! premiered off-Broadway in February
1967, about a year-and-a-half before Nixon appeared on Laugh-In!
and long before Jon Stewart became Americas most-trusted
anchorman. The play superimposes the Kennedy and Johnson yearswhich
were still going on as she penned the scripton Shakespeares
Macbeth. Ever wonder why Lady Bird planted all those gardens?
Well, Lady MacBird doesnt have a damned spot to get
out: Shes got the odor of John Ken ODuncs
murder to efface. We have to follow after her with Airwick,
one of her black-bouffanted daughters explains, as her mother
offers a mad scene drawn as much from Hamlet as from the Scottish
the Ken ODunc dynasty has a cunning plan to take over
the nation, or at least John and Bobby do. (They toss airplane
bottles of booze to brother Ted as he blithely plays at crashing
his Matchbox cars.) They co-opt cowboy-politico MacBird to
help with national unity. But when he starts listening to
a trio of weird folkand even smoking from their bubbling
cauldronhe revels in the knowledge that he will be omnipotent
until burning wood does come to Washington.
now thinking of those Saturday Night Live sketches, built
on one tiny premise, stretched to fraying through braying
repetition for three to five minutes, making you long for
the damn Budweiser commercials alreadyand then stretched
even further into feature films. This, surprisingly, is not
one of those. In fact, its better than it needs to be.
Garson, a classics scholar, is rigorous about the meter: In
one gag, John tries to make iambs out of the ask what
you can do for your country speech. She throws in Bardic
references hither and yon, to hilarious effect. (Best of all
is the blend of corn pone and Elizabethan given to MacBird:
At Johns inauguration, he grumbles, This heres
the winter of our discontent.)
Century Theaters zesty production pours on the era-appropriate
references, from a cameo by Marilyn in that white halter dress
to a stuffed beagle towell, itd be a shame to
spoil them all. If anything, the sight gags get a bit too
frantic at times: When the large ensemble is all assembled,
theres enough attempted spotlight-grabbing for the 1968
abound, as the script and these able playersespecially
Joe Cronin as MacBird and Brian Crane in a flurry of minor
roleswring black humor from the JFK assassination, offer
blackface agitprop, and prove eerily prescient about the fall
of New Englands Camelot. One thing that wont surprise
anyone, though, is a sight gag during the prologue, when a
floppy-codpieced actor brandishes photos of Kennedy and Johnson
on sticksthen flips them around to reveal pictures of
Dubya and Cheney. Some satire, like Shakespeare, is timeless.
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-- Susan Berlin
With its wildly funny production
of MacBird!, American Century Theatre in Arlington,
Va., once again lives up to its goal of returning notable
but neglected 20th-century American plays to the stage. Barbara
Garson's 1967 satire, conflating then-President Lyndon Baines
Johnson with William Shakespeare's Macbeth, was incendiary
in its own time, and despite the obviously dated topical
references still says a lot about the dark corners of the
Part of the fascination of the
play, as directed by Ellen Dempsey, comes from digging through
the various strata of the satire. The bedrock is Garson's
original text, which lightly tweaks Shakespeare's own words
for her own purposes (a prologue from Henry V here,
a plot strand from Hamlet there). Another layer comes
from the author's prescience: she makes reference to things
that she could not have known at the time would actually come
to pass. The third level is the director's timely additions,
including atmospheric sound effects and a well-placed pretzel.
The actors are all on the same page, never making the mistake
of not playing their roles broadly enough.
Garson doesn't only skewer the
arrogant, driven Texan MacBird (Joe Cronin) and his steel-magnolia
wife, Lady MacBird (Charlotte Akin), whose madness manifests
itself in the real Lady Bird Johnson's roadside beautification
program. The playwright's message is more "a plague on all
your houses": the handsome, virile, young king, John Ken O'Dunc
(Robert Rector), and his resolute brother Bobby (Joshua Drew),
are smug, condescending womanizers, while youngest brother
Teddy (Steven McWilliams) is depicted as an overgrown child
playing with toys.
Garson also tweaks the political
activism of her own era, using three pot-addled hippies (Maura
Stadem, Theodore M. Snead, J.J. Area) in place of Shakespeare's
witches. They prophesy about the Watts riots of 1965 and college
students' attempts to stop troop trains taking soldiers to
"Viet Land"; their incantation is "Bubble and bubble, toil
and trouble, Burn baby burn, and caldron bubble."
The downside to producing such
a timely work is that a lot of viewers are too young to know
the history of the minor characters, amusing though they are.
How many people today remember maverick U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse,
here portrayed by Jay Tilley as a singing, swaggering "warrior
for peace" in a kilt, or will know that the spotlight-chasing
"Egg of Head" (Brian Crane) is former U.N. Ambassador and
presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson?
Thomas B. Kennedy's scenic design
neatly sets up the sense of the drama: a cartoonish backdrop
depicting the White House with its columns cracked, and the
Capitol and Washington Monument knocked off their foundations.
Sound designer Matt Otto matches the mood throughout, opening
with Jimi Hendrix's blistering rendition of The Star-Spangled
Banner performed at Woodstock.
The program notes point out that,
before MacBird!, satire aimed at a sitting U.S. president
was rare. This play changed society's whole outlook, to the
point where some people today find the most truthful political
reporting on television comedy shows.
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Arlington Weekly News TV
"Arlington Weekly News TV"
Broadcast (2006) Thurs., 9/14, 6 p.m.; Sat., 9/16, 10:30 a.m.;
Mon., 9/18, 8:30 p.m.
Leave it to TACT's artistic
director, Jack Marshall, and producer Rhonda Hill, to dust-off
a long forgotten off-Broadway political satire, "MacBird!".
Written in 1965 by a 24 year old political activist, Barbara
Garson, "MacBird!" fuses the Kennedy/Johnson administrations
with, yes, Shakespeare's "Macbeth". So, actor Joe
Cronin, not too unlike Lyndon Baines Johnson in looks, plays
the big Bird---thus MacBird---and Charlotte Akin is Shakespeare's
flipped out Lady MacBird. Back in 1967 when this show hit
the stage in New York, then President Johnson was having political
trouble with the Vietnam War, which brought him down. But
before that period, pre-November 1963, the three Kennedy brothers,
characterized in this play as John Ken O'Dunc and Bobby and
Teddy O'Dunc are played unmercifully by Robert Rector, Joshua
Drew and Steven McWilliams. Actor Jay Tilley, known especially
in the Manassas area, was a hoot in take-offs as Sen. Wayne
Morse and Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Brian Crane was
an "Egg of Head" version of Adlai Stevenson. Cute
and chubby Alex Perez was funny as an aide with his physical
shtick. Colby Codding as MacBird's aide does a good job, too.,
There are others who add to this romp directed by Ellen Dempsey.
"MacBird" may be particularly enjoyable for those
of us over 50. Step back in political time-and also get a
little Shakespeare-with "MacBird" through Oct. 7
at Gunston Arts Center. Call 703-553-8782 for information
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Del Ray Sun
Déjà Vu All Over Again
By Robbie Thornton
Remembering the sixties is almost
an oxymoron. If you remember how much fun it was, you probably
were just watching.
It was the summer of love and
the Chicago riots, the LA riots, the DC riots, and the phrase
Burn Baby Burn took a dark turn from its original reference
to hot music to cities being destroyed by rioting, looting,
and arson. It was the Beach Boys and JFKs assassination.
If ever a decade was bittersweet, it was this mélange
of Peace, Love, and War, foreign and domestic.
MacBird! The current production
at American Century Theater successfully portrays the schizophrenic
era. It combines wacky, almost slapstick, comedy, with moments
of high drama. It is irreverent, clever, and quirky, and this
production delivers intact.
Many of the sixties characters
were larger than life. John Kennedy, beloved and detested,
transformed the cultural wasteland that was Washington to
the magical kingdom of Camelot. With his brother Bob as Attorney
General, his brother Ted as a senator from Massachusetts,
it looked as if the Kennedy dynasty was destined to claim
America as its own kingdom, attractive, wealthy, cultured,
and groomed for politics, the Kennedy clan was unstoppable.
Or so it seemed for the first thousand days -- Well, the only
thousand days of the Kennedy presidency.
Audiences for MacBird! will likely
fall into groups, people in recovery from the sixties and
(younger) people who need a scorecard. Fortunately for the
latter if they are subscribers Artistic Director Jack
Marshall has provided one. Marshalls audience guide gives
background about playwright Barbara Garson and the play itself
(which is, of course, the thing), a guide to 60s references
in the play, and a particularly interesting essay about how
attitudes about the dignity of the office of the president
have changed since the days of august presidents through Roosevelt,
Truman, and Eisenhower transformed with the Kennedy impressions
by Vaughn Meader and other comedians of the sixties and continued
to evolve untold today. Despite the humorous impressions of
David Frye, Frank Gorshin, and other impressionists whose
names will mystify anyone under the age of forty, the press
would not address the open secret of presidential trysting
or even FDRs disability.
When MacBird! was first produced
in the late sixties, it was outrageous. In some ways it still
is. However, it is a play and this is a production that
anyone over forty will appreciate with some melancholy, nostalgia,
and wry amusement at the way we were. As has been remarkably
true of so many eras, It was the best of times; it was the
worst of times.. For those under forty, we suggest taking
a talkative geezer or seek out a copy of the audience guide.
Otherwise, the splash wont mean a thing.
The splash is an example of
the great bad taste that runs throughout the show. As the
brothers Kennedy plan the future of their dynasty (Jack will
be the first president, followed by Bobby, and Teddy great
splash; great laughs aint gonna make it.
The guffaws that greeted the
splash that dampened Teddys chances suggested that the median
age for the audience was above thirty. I can only wonder what
the teens in the room thought about all of us gray hairs and
no hairs roaring at a loud splash that was singularly unfunny.
Chappaquidic is water over the dam; its name not even a
footnote to most of the young people in the audience, but
to the savvy mature crowd the laughter was recognition, not,
of course, amusement at the death of a young woman and political
aspirations. (If that can be said of a senator who has been
in office longer than many voters have been alive.)
MacBird! is not an updated Macbeth.
Sure, the three weird sisters or witches are here, in this
version a trio of hip youths, two of whom MacBird refers to
as a nigra and a filthy beatnik. The third is a willowy
hippy once played by Sigourney Weaver. Lady MacBird (here
played gorgeously by Charlotte Aikin) is Lady Macbeth, the
power behind the throne, the cold plotter. Like Lady Macbeth,
Lady MacBird loses her mind, although instead of seeing visions
of blood that an ocean could not was away, Lady MacBird is
by a coterie of Glade yielding women who try to conceal the
smell of blood that she cannot get out of her nose. It is
also the reason for Lady Bird Johnsons beautification program
in which flowers were planted all around Washington to overwhelm
the smell of blood. A line of familiar personages marches
across the stage, seeming to stretch to the crack of doom.
However, the play echoes a number
of Shakespearean plays. Now cracks a noble heart, MacBirds
line at his fatal heart attack (I think that that is not giving
too much away.) is taken from Hamlet. Other lines, appropriately,
come from Julius Caesar and the history plays. Another line
seems taken directly from T.S. Eliots Murder in a Cathedral,
when Henry asks pointedly whether no one will rid him of this
troublesome priest. Shortly thereafter, Ted Kennedys small
plane suffers mysterious engine failure and crashes in an
apple orchard in Massachusetts, killing the pilot and an aide,
and breaking the young senator back.
That the Kennedy familys history
has played out like a Shakespearean tragedy should not be
news to anyone with a remote grasp of modern American history,
but MacBird! captures the spirit of the sixties, from the
first bars of Jimmy Hendrixs notoriously jangling Star-Spangled
banner, to the entrance of the three witches, which encapsulates
the sixties in about fifteen seconds, through the almost slapstick
broad humor of much of the play, or the raw drama of Lady
The ensemble adds immeasurably
to the performance, offering some of the choices bits of stage
business and keeping the play moving. The set was simple,
unpretentious and effective. Combined with beautifully synchronized
lighting, it did yeoman service. One of the rare false notes
in the show was the bad Kennedy accents, which for a reviewer
from Massachusetts were painful to hear.
While it might not be for everyone,
MacBird! is among the best of the ACT productions we have
attended. The sure hand of Director Ellen Dempsey has tied
together the swift changes from farce to high drama and focused
attention on the main element of each scene. A marvelous case
in point is Lady Birds swooning after the news of JFKs assassination,
where she makes certain to face the camera through her slow
fall to the floor.
To some of the younger members
of the audience, LBJs pulling a stuffed hound from under
his desk by the ears and kissing it on the nose might
seem purely silly. To those of us who remember the furor LBJ
raised under similar circumstances it is another gem of history
set perfectly against the foil of time.
This is not a kind satire. There
is nothing gentle about playwright Barbara Garsons jibes,
but anyone who does not leave the theater talking about it
has flatlined intellectually.
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She Hopes 'MacBird' Flies in a New Era
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 5, 2006; C05
Barbara Garson says she never meant to imply 39 years ago
in her Shakespearean spoof of American politics that Lyndon
Johnson engineered the assassination of President John F.
Kennedy. Given that she used the murder-filled plot of "Macbeth,"
however, some people took it that way.
Garson's controversial -- in
some quarters notorious -- 1967 play is being revived by American
Century Theater in Arlington Friday through Oct. 7.
"People used to ask me then,
'Do you really think Johnson killed Kennedy?" Garson,
now 65, recalls. "I never took that seriously. I used
to say to people, if he did, it's the least of his crimes.
. . . It was not what the play was about. The plot was a given."
When the play opened at New York's
Village Gate, Garson was in her mid-20s, a graduate of the
University of California at Berkeley -- that hotbed of anti-Vietnam
War sentiment -- and a founding member of the Free Speech
movement there. After "MacBird!" she won a 1976-77
Obie Award for her off-Broadway children's play "The
Dinosaur Door," but is more prolific as the author of
nonfiction books, including "Money Makes the World Go
Round" and "The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers
Are Transforming the Office of the Future." She is working
on a new play, titled "Security," about the economic,
not the national kind.
MacBird is a larger-than-life
Texas politico serving uncomfortably as vice president under
the Machiavellian, aristocratic president, John Ken O'Dunc.
MacBird and Lady MacBird, as per Shakespeare, engineer Ken
O'Dunc's murder. Garson says she feels her spoof was "fair
to everybody except Lady Bird," harshly caricatured as
"It wasn't an anti-Johnson
play," Garson says, though she did intend it as a broad
critique of both Kennedy's and Johnson's approach to politics.
"It was the Johnson that Bill Moyers described . . .
self-dramatizing, self-pitying, but also a true liberal, and
unable to understand why these Kennedys, who did so little,
really, were thought of as so beautiful."
Johnson, she says, "was
as bad as the other guys in this play . . . but he wasn't
Actors who were then newcomers,
but soon made names for themselves -- Stacy Keach, William
Devane, Rue McClanahan and Cleavon Little -- played leads
in the original production. Legendary New York Times critic
Walter Kerr dismissed Garson's satire and wrote that the playwright
seemed "like someone who has suddenly thought of something
funny to say at a party, who has blurted out the beginning
of the joke only to realize that it is hurtling her headlong
toward embarrassing consequences, and who has then plunged
It's also clear from Kerr's review
that Garson's comedic jab at the Kennedy assassination came
too soon for him. The play was written before the assassination
of Robert Kennedy, who, as Robert Ken O'Dunc in the play,
becomes an amalgam of Macduff and Malcolm, defeating MacBird
in a convention-floor battle and taking power. Garson's play
also preceded LBJ's announcement that he would not seek reelection
"What 'MacBird!' was about
was asking the political people not just to jump on the Kennedy
bandwagon or the Democratic Party thing, but to produce something
independent that was worthy of our efforts. And we didn't
do that," says Garson of the '60s counterculture. "We
influenced the culture immensely . . . but we didn't leave
The lines in "MacBird!"
are borrowed, and in some cases rejiggered, from many of Shakespeare's
plays -- whatever worked. Most famously, there was "Bubble
and bubble, toil and trouble, Burn baby burn, and cauldron
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