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MacBird!


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City Paper
MacBird!

There’s a sickness at the heart of In the Mood. This malady makes its victim feel so energetic he doesn’t 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 it’s got him in its spell, he truly believes he can save the world.

It’s never stated in the script that Neil Workman suffers from bipolar disorder, though the program notes make it clear—and any viewer who’s been close to someone with that illness will recognize Christopher Lane’s spot-on, award-worthy portrayal.

But that’s not the real sickness here. The real sickness is male power.

Early on in Irene Wurtzel’s memory play, Jennifer, Neil’s wife of 23 years, mentions something she’s 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 it’s true. And they’ve 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 his office.

Charles has found room on those walls for a painting by Jennifer, a talented artist who, since the couple’s arrival in Washington, has made great strides in her career. He doesn’t understand the painting, of course, but he buys it because he’s a good friend and a decent fellow. But “decent” isn’t 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 obsession—he watches the same Skins game over and over, grunting in the glory of his team’s successes—and then into black clouds of despair.

Jennifer 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 can’t go to the Middle East for an important conference, guess who starts visualizing world peace—and then some?

Olney’s emotionally ambitious, deeply moving production, under Jim Petosa, gets so much right that it’s almost petty to complain about the wrong bits. But let’s, anyway: Some of the action takes place at stage-floor level, some on balconies to the left and right. (There’s 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.

And although her marital situation makes us feel for Jennifer—who seems to do the right thing, again and again, to no avail—MaryBeth Wise’s resolutely confident portrayal lacks variation. Stuck in a smeared painter’s 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.

Wurtzel has written surprisingly complex supporting characters, in particular the couple’s college-age son (Tim Spears) and Neil’s widowed mother (Halo Wines), either of whose relationships with Neil might have anchored an equally compelling play in itself. Theresa Barbato is effective as Neil’s assistant, and Leo Erickson compelling as Charles—a fellow who speaks far more softly than Neil while feeling no need to swing a big stick all the time.

Which brings us to Neil: handsome, intelligent (if a bit enamored of facts as poker chips), and apparently appealing to Jennifer. I didn’t like the Tom Cruise model of manhood even before couches started getting trampled, so maybe I’m the wrong judge of this sort of thing. But it’s a little hard to believe that Neil’s breakdown came so suddenly, when manic superiority seems so firmly rooted in his personality. Although Jennifer says she and Neil’s mother are close, she’s 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 Neil’s manly swagger has turned into a Santinilike bullying of his son, as it does near the end of the play.

A public service announcement is in order: Bipolar disorder and testosterone-transmitted narcissism aren’t 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.

Still, In the Mood never becomes a disease-of-the-week melodrama, and in any case it doesn’t 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 Washington—and shake?

While we’re in that inside-the-Beltway mood, why not examine a play in which power corrupts not only absolutely, but in iambic pentameter?

Barbara Garson’s 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 America’s most-trusted anchorman. The play superimposes the Kennedy and Johnson years—which were still going on as she penned the script—on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Ever wonder why Lady Bird planted all those gardens? Well, Lady MacBird doesn’t have a damned spot to get out: She’s got the odor of John Ken O’Dunc’s 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 play.

Yep, the Ken O’Dunc 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 folk—and even smoking from their bubbling cauldron—he revels in the knowledge that he will be omnipotent “until burning wood does come to Washington.”

You’re 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 already—and then stretched even further into feature films. This, surprisingly, is not one of those. In fact, it’s 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 John’s inauguration, he grumbles, “This here’s the winter of our discontent.”)

American Century Theater’s zesty production pours on the era-appropriate references, from a cameo by Marilyn in that white halter dress to a stuffed beagle to—well, it’d 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, there’s enough attempted spotlight-grabbing for the 1968 Democratic convention.

Surprises abound, as the script and these able players—especially Joe Cronin as MacBird and Brian Crane in a flurry of minor roles—wring black humor from the JFK assassination, offer blackface agitprop, and prove eerily prescient about the fall of New England’s Camelot. One thing that won’t surprise anyone, though, is a sight gag during the prologue, when a floppy-codpieced actor brandishes photos of Kennedy and Johnson on sticks—then flips them around to reveal pictures of Dubya and Cheney. Some satire, like Shakespeare, is timeless.

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Talkin' Broadway
MacBird!
-- 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 political process.

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

"MacBird!"

Rich Massabny
Producer/Interviewer/Reviewer
"Arlington Weekly News TV"
CHANNEL 69
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 an tickets.

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Del Ray Sun
MacBird! 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 MacBirds madness.

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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The Washington Post
She Hopes 'MacBird' Flies in a New Era

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 5, 2006; C05

"MacBird!" playwright 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 "Lady MacBird."

"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 worse."

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 on anyway."

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 in 1968.

"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 any structure."

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 bubble."

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