Jimmy Stewart Would Be Proud
But Obscuristan's source may be too obscure.
July 17, 2002
Okay class, here's your pre-Mime Troupe show homework. Before you pack up a nice vegan picnic lunch, dig out your red star T-shirt, or even use the office Xerox machine to knock off a few hundred fliers to hand out to fellow audience members, you need to rent a video of the Frank Capra film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Because while Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan will certainly make sense if you haven't seen its antecedent, you'll find the play a lot funnier if you've got Jimmy Stewart's naive-but-sincere "Junior Senator Designate" fresh in your head.
True to form, in Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan the Troupers combine the latest political debacles with old-but-good source material and then stand back to see what happens, and this year the source material is a little more esoteric than usual.
Let's quickly recap Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which is based on the novel The Gentleman from Montana. A senator has dropped dead at an inconvenient time, and his state's political machine (lorded over by a newspaper magnate named Taylor) has to
scramble to find a malleable replacement for the governor to appoint. The corrupt governor chooses local hero Jefferson Smith, the leader of the "Boy Rangers" club, who has single-handedly put out a huge forest fire. Smith is the ideal patsy: clean-cut, patriotic, and absolutely clueless. Mr. Smith goes to Washington and quickly snags in the gears of the finest democracy money can buy, stirring up a tremendous ruckus when he realizes that he's being played for a fool by Taylor and Taylor's pet senator Payne. Jeff Smith takes advantage of his First Amendment rights by staging a filibuster that serves two purposes: Jimmy Stewart gets to look deliciously haggard as he says all sorts of stirring things about democracy, and Payne (Claude Rains) finally snaps, regaining the soul he'd traded for power. There's other good stuff, especially a routine with a hat and the kind of dialogue nobody seems to write for women anymore bestowed upon the witty Jean Arthur. The overall impression is that our government is dirty, but dedicated people can change it.
Now there's Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan, which features a local hero (New York firefighter Jefferson Smith), a corrupt White House, and a destitute Central Asian republic bracing for its very first (allegedly) open election. The White House wants to send a token of American goodwill, but fears that the Obscuristanis will suspect ulterior motives ("Every time we try to export democracy, we're accused of trying import oil," complains Dick Cheney). So they decide to send in an official observer. Reverend Jackson's no good: he's too volatile and knows too much. Jimmy Carter's been hanging out with Castro. The Oval Office is in a panic until Ambassador Payne dreams up a solution, singing "Gentlemen, I have the solution/and this time we won't need to shred the Constitution." Operation Enduring Image is born, with the appointment of Jeff Smith as "Impartial Election Observer Designate."
Jeff is perfect for their purposes -- he will be, as Payne says, "the bubble wrap around the fragile gift [democracy] we are bringing to our friends." But it doesn't take Jeff Smith long, once he gets his regalia to Obscuristan (of his massive fire ax, he says, "I'm surprised they didn't catch this at security -- they did take my nail clippers"), to realize that something is rotten in Denmark. Helped by young Mustafa (Victor Toman, with great lines like "I am hella grateful to you, uncle, but I need my space. I can't spend my life chilling in your fundamentalist crib"), journalist Marcie Chang (codirector Keiko Shimosato), and the elusive politician Ralif Nadir (Amos Glick), Smith uncovers the plot to keep American-oil-company-friendly Automaht Regurgitov (also Victor Toman) in power. Blessedly, he doesn't pull a 23-hour filibuster, instead hatching a scheme with Chang to right the wrongs done by the White House -- and regain his standing with his Junior Firefighters' Club.
It's a funny idea, and the Mime Troupe brought in a big gun to help them realize it, tapping veteran monologuist (Red Diaper Baby) and unlikely screen sex god (Haiku Tunnel) Josh Kornbluth, who has wanted to work with the Mime Troupe since his dad took him to see The Dragon Lady's Revenge twenty years ago. In this hectic year of Muslimphobia, ostentatious patriotism, and a vice president on the receiving end of a lawsuit, he got his wish, and the result, while not as silly as last year's 1600 Transylvania Avenue with its corporate bloodsuckers and over-the-top Dracula references, is a lot more cohesive.
Amos Glick is back this year as Dubya (sadly, no cape this year), who eagerly asks his mother, "Wanna watch Celebrity Boxing? Hank [Henry Kissinger] is getting his ass kicked by some pencil-neck [Noam Chomsky]." Likewise, Ed Holmes is back as an understated Dick Cheney (no cape for him either, more's the pity). Velina Brown (last year's main bloodsucker target) plays the conflicted Ambassador Payne, who was once a lawyer fighting the good fight in Selma and Montgomery. Unlike her big screen predecessor Senator Payne, Ambassador Payne doesn't almost shoot herself and then throw herself, raving, on the mercy of the Senate. Here she retains a little dignity, even admitting in the sultry "Avenger of the Oppressed" that she still secretly fights the good fight, mostly by playing the dominatrix to various bad eggs. Codirector and cowriter Michael Gene Sullivan is all guileless sincerity as Jefferson Smith, managing, as Stewart did in 1939, to be sweet and righteous without being irritating.
Jason Sherbundy's music for this show is great, from the strains of belly-dance music to the snippet of "I Will Survive" that surfaces in an unlikely place. Once again the Troupe utilizes a clever folding set, this time adding smaller moving backgrounds behind characters outside of Obscuristan (Marcie's boss Diz Deletabit skiing in Switzerland, for example). The costumes, while not as outrageous as last year's (no Masonic robes to be had anywhere), are still amusing, and the physical comedy still visible from the back of the park. The Troupe has its shtick down on that count.
I wonder what it would be like to see this show without having watched the Capra film. The guys on the next blanket over, who apparently hadn't stayed up to see the movie the night before, weren't laughing as much as I was, but then they were pretty drunk and sunburned, so perhaps they weren't very focused. Likewise, it's hard not to compare this year's show to last year's, especially since it covers some of the same ground and features some of the same characters. Where 1600 drew upon Dracula, a story you'd have to live on Mars not to know, Mr. Smith is based on an old movie that not everyone has seen, and I think that does have an impact on how much the audience will enjoy it. If that's true, it's unfortunate, because both the play and the film have a lot to recommend them, for their critique of our democracy and their faith in our ability to overcome its weaknesses.