It's official: the local folks love their sullen rockstar presidents and doily headed historical muffin tops. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson has been extended two weeks through November 25. What's more, Portland Playhouse is offering a discount, not that it really needs to, what with selling out shows and all. Bring a friend and get $25 tickets by using the code "Encore."
President Andrew Jackson is a rock star. With a microphone tucked in his low-slung gun holster, over his jeans so tight, he struts and slinks across the stage like a sullen hipster sex symbol, finally taking the presidency in front of a giant lit up sign with the A and J separated by an AC/DC–style lightening bolt while exclaiming “I’m going to fill you with my populist jism.” Even his backup politician, Martin Van Buren, wears a VB shirt, as Jackson fights off hordes of swooning saloon prostitutes and whines when he doesn’t get his political way.
So envisions Portland Playhouse’s anachronistically bombastic production of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. With the tag line, “Have you seen my stimulus package?” the play makes bawdy bedfellows of sketch comedy, emo rock narcissism, and historical fiction/fantasy. With little more than names and a rough outline of events to tie it to history, its outlandish costumes and over the top characterizations of populist pioneers and Washingtonian elites feels more like Monty Python doing a cowboys and Indians show on the WB than anything you’d see on the History Channel. Which is to say it is hilarious and biting, though its humor is so over the top that it doesn’t always hit the deeper political notes it aims for.
Written by Alex Timbers with music by Michael Friedman, the play begins with young Jackson losing his parents to Indian arrows (one of many historical fabrications for the sake of comedy), and follows him through his rise to the Governor of Florida and ultimately to the presidency, where, as the people’s president— the show opens with the catchy emo anthem “Populism, Yea! Yea!”—he literally asks White House tourists how he should respond to the Indian problem. Along the way, he beats back the British and the Spanish, annihilates a Native American tribe or ten, out maneuvers some effete Washington insiders (hilariously portrayed in ruffled Victorian dandy coats and absurd wigs by Jason Rouse, Darius Pierce, John San Nicolas, and Chris Murray, sucking on a stuffed weasel’s head), falls in love, loses his wife to grief, and then must face an increasing disenchanted public.
Under the tight direction of Portland Playhouse artistic director Brian Weaver, the show swings with the unbridled energy of a carnival ride. Twenty cast and band members fill the small theater, finely decked out by scenic designer Daniel Meeker like a Wild West vaudeville funhouse, with ribald humor and no holds barred performance, including an excellently choreographed fight scene that ends in Jackson getting tortured by the British with pillows—“Would you guys stop it,” he squeals, “it really f**kin’ hurts”—before slinking off to suck down a juice carton.
Seattle actor Logan Benedict plays Andrew Jackson like the lead singer of Dashboard Confessional doing a turn on Lonesome Dove—he’s all swagger in his unbuttoned Henley and revolver-cased mike. And the rest of the cast, made up in large part by local sketch comedy veterans, is spot on with its comedic timing and caricatures (not too mention a couple of current jabs, including a quip about "binders full of laws").
The play’s political satire is at its best when it’s taking South Park’s skewer everyone approach, portraying the American people as celebrity obsessed, sniveling sycophants. And no doubt the story’s portrayal of Jackson as an egocentric, self-righteous, and self-ennobled voice of the people, who has no qualms about devastating the Native American population or his rivals, are boots that would fit just as tightly on some more recent presidents—indeed, it was written during our last cowboy president, and I can easily imagine a Bush caricature uttering Jackson’s words: “You don’t understand the nuances of consolidated executive power. You don’t know what you want. That’s why I’m the president,” although sub “decider” for “president.”
The play is less strong when it tries to be serious. Melissa Murray as Jackson’s wife Rachel and Jared Miller as Black Fox, a Native chief who cooperates with Jackson only to be betrayed, make noble attempts as the serious foils to Jackson’s humorous flaws. But, even with the troubling image struck by the cast in the final moments, it’s hard to take the play as anything deeper–hitting than delicious satire (with the exception of the song "Ten Little Indians," about the destruction of the Native tribes). Which, given the overwhelming seriousness of the political drama unfolding with the election and its nonstop coverage, might be more a relief than a weakness. As South Park has shown time and time again, humor can serve as a potent release valve.
Portland Playhouse has tackled some serious political and racial issues during its short tenure in Northeast Portland. It’s nice to see them get a chance to make, not light, but at least fun of some of those issues too. The cast and crew pull it off with rowdy flair that it’s hard to believe that BBAJ is Portland Playhouse’s first musical the cast and crew pull it off with rowdy flair.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through November 25 at Portland Playhouse. Tickets available here.