In Washington, D.C., it’s easy to find good political theater: Just grab a front-row gallery seat at the next hot-button issue vote. However, those looking to enjoy a performance of the more artistic variety might want to investigate the 11-day play marathon known as the Capital Fringe Festival, which kicks off tonight in venues across the district.
Part of a larger tradition found in many major cities in the United States, the festival’s mission is “to connect exploratory artists with adventurous audiences by creating an open-access annual performing arts festival” in a variety of spaces at affordable prices. This year, performances at the festival, which runs through July 29 at locations throughout D.C., will include musicals (“Carrie Potter and the Half Blood Prom”), dances (“Human”), retellings of classics (“The Trojan Women”) and even a creative endeavor by activist historian Howard Zinn (“Marx in SoHo”).
“We are back with an even more diverse and uniquely D.C. event this year,” festival director and co-founder Julianne Brienza said in an official press release. And apparently in line with the spirit of its host city, Capital Fringe will feature two original political satires: “A White House Tale” and “I (Heart) U.S. (Paid for by the Dept. of Emotional Affairs).”
“A White House Tale” marks the first endeavor by the Silver Spring, Md.-based Shoestring Theater, a new company of five actors ranging from 22 to 60 years old. The play is based in improvisation, but there is a premise to give the action some structure: It’s Christmastime, and first lady Laura Bush has banished her husband to the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House as punishment for giving her the “wrong present.” Throughout the night, President Bush is visited by the ghosts of presidents past who aim to teach him important lessons about what it means to serve in public office and lead a good life.
If this is starting to sound a lot like the popular holiday tale by Charles Dickens, that’s no mistake; producer, director and Shoestring founder Frank Mancino was inspired by “A Christmas Carol.” The real substance of the piece, though, emerged from a more personal epiphany.
“Basically, the idea came to me from reading the paper and seeing that President Bush says all he cares about is history,” Mancino said. “I thought, ‘what if history came to call on him?’”
What results on stage is a parade of former White House denizens from the past century, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. The selection seems strange, but Mancino is quick to point out the logic behind his choices.
“These presidents share many of Bush’s characteristics and background, so they can empathize with him, but they can also talk to him about what it means to give back, and the responsibility of people who are rich and privileged to give back … Nixon and Reagan, though, are actually coming in to advise Bush not to change.”
Will the president change his ways, or will he stay the course? The audience gets to decide.
“I (Heart) U.S. (Paid for by the Dept. of Emotional Affairs)” is a production that came out of an entirely organic process. Members of the Nettles Artists Collective, a New York City experimental theater ensemble, decided they wanted to write a play together. Not knowing where to begin, they picked their idea, literally, out of a hat.
“Everyone wrote down ideas and we pulled them out randomly,” said Sandie Luna, the co-founder and co-director of Nettles. “The one that stood out was emotional intelligence. We all went home and wrote vignettes inspired by this idea, and we went from there.”
Though “I (Heart) U.S.” takes place in a not-so-distant future, the themes it contains are reminiscent of today’s society. The protagonist, Barbara, is a Brazilian immigrant and single mother who comes to the U.S. with her daughter. Her husband doesn’t pay child support because he can’t get a job, and Barbara works hard but can’t afford medical insurance.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government claims that its citizens lack “emotional intelligence” and therefore must allow their emotions to be defined and manipulated by public officials. At the holding center where individuals are sent to “learn” emotional intelligence (suspiciously known as the “RAQ” or “Re-educational Auditing Quarantine”), the uniform is an orange jumpsuit.
“Basically, we started thinking about what it would be like if emotional intelligence was something that was pushed down your throat as somebody else saw it, like the government,” Luna said. “It also shows how anyone can take anything and turn it into whatever they want if they’re the ones in power.”
The stories couldn’t be more different, but Mancino and Luna both had comparable things to say about the intentions and goals of their respective plays. For one thing, they are both thrilled to be performing in front of D.C. audiences.
“It struck me that living in D.C., you can’t help but be interested in politics because it’s the major theater of the city,” Mancino said. “All the fights between the executive and the federal and the judicial … we take it for granted.”
Luna said of the Fringe gig, “Everybody asks, ‘Why are you going to D.C. with this show?’ Because no other place would make more sense. If someone’s going to get it, it’s going to be the D.C. audience because they’re in the heart of it all.”
Both performances are satires, though each responds to specific elements of current events and come from a similarly bleak political perspective.
“In the beginning we were just being reactors to our surroundings, and then we realized we were saying things that were political and there was a shift because you can’t say things that are political without being aware and respectful of that,” Luna explained. “The bigger picture [of the play] now has to do with the idea that we, as a society, are not emotionally intelligent … we’ve become dumbed down and we kind of believe everything we’re told … the government is teaching us not to be individuals. We’re sort of being herded, and we’re going along with that.”
Mancino said while everyone in the company comes from a different background, they all are “in favor of a presidency that might accomplish something towards the overall welfare of everybody.”
Both Mancino and Luna also emphasize that while the stories may have a point, they aren’t intended to be preachy.
“The play is very humorous,” said Luna, adding that it was in many ways a “physical comedy,” harkening back to the company’s emphasis on body language to tell stories. “With the whole thing of turning emotional intelligence upside down, everything becomes exaggerated. There are some references you won’t get, but you’ll laugh when you see it, and then maybe you’ll understand later … we’re not trying to beat anyone over the head with these issues.”
“A leader has to take command and lead, and I think there’s still potential for Bush to be a leader,” Mancino said. “The whole point of this exercise is to show that these other presidents were challenged, and they met those challenges. They didn’t walk away and deny reality.
“I don’t want this to be didactic. I want it to make you think but also make you laugh … I guess this is a ‘wishful thinking’ kind of show.”
“I (Heart) U.S. (Paid for by the Dept. of Emotional Affairs)” will be performed July 20 at 1 p.m.; July 21 at 2 p.m.; July 22 at 6 p.m.; July 24 at 5 p.m.; and July 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s Melton Rehearsal Hall, 614 D St. NW. “A White House Tale” will be performed July 22 at 7 p.m.; July 25 at 9 p.m.; July 26 at 8 p.m.; July 27 at 8 p.m.; and July 29 at 4:30 p.m. at the Goethe Institut, 812 Seventh St. NW. For more information on the Capital Fringe Festival, see capfringe.org.