'Presidential Hopeless' Works as a Farce, Not as Satire

The Change It Needs
John Richardson’s retooling of the seminal play Ubu Roi works as a farce but doesn’t quite make it as satire

It’s a safe assumption that many who watch Presidential Hopeless will exit STAGEStheatre thinking they just watched a frequently amusing, if long-winded, satire of American idiocy set in the White House. They may think the enthusiastically oafish president at the heart of Orange County playwright John Richardson’s new work is a not-so-subtle nod to a certain Texas fake rancher and that the tightly wound, bespectacled vice president with the neatly coiffed bun hairstyle is an equally unsubtle nod to a former Alaskan governor.

Less obvious is that Richardson’s play is a freewheeling, contemporary riff on one of the most monumental plays ever written: Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s 1896 skewering of the French bourgeoisie. That play was about a mean, vulgar man who ascends to the throne of Poland after slaughtering the royal family and, assisted by his charming wife, bleeds the country dry.

Keeping hopelessness alive
Keeping hopelessness alive

The content may not sound revolutionary, but the form—a grotesquely exaggerated puppet show that gleefully defied the time-honored Aristotelian notions of the well-made play—struck the ossified institutions of theater, literature and art like a lightning bolt. Upon seeing one of its two productions (the play sparked riots and was banned from respectable French theaters), W.B. Yeats wrote that the scandalous performance marked the end of an era to art. Romanticism and naturalism, if not kicked to the curb, would never be hip again; the cool kids would soon embrace Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Absurdism.

Anti-art had entered the building, and it hasn’t left yet.

Jarry’s Ubu Roi is rarely produced as written, but the corrupt, self-serving protagonist has served as catnip for many a writer seeking a template for a discussion of the corrupt, self-serving ways of modern politicians.

That holds true in Presidential Hopeless. Its president is Roy Ubu, a karaoke whiz who finished third on an American Idol-like TV show and inexplicably finds himself front-and-center in the Oval Office. Roy is a gleeful libertine who paws at women, mocks his office, and feverishly embraces a political agenda of non-thinking and non-doing.

In Nick McGee’s riotously funny performance, Roy exhibits a weird blend of ball-scratching, id-driven Al Bundy and the anarchic spirit of Groucho Marx’s Rufus. T. Firefly in Duck Soup. Unfortunately, Al nearly always wins, both in McGee’s terrific performance and in Richardson’s script.

The result is a play that works as simple farce—but never amounts to anything more.

Richardson knows his theater: Along with Ubu Roi, he references Hamlet, Macbeth and Waiting for Godot. He also knows funny. But his apparent lack of interest in aspiring to anything more than a wildly comic romp renders Presidential Hopeless regrettably slight.

His play feels unduly long, a flaw Ernest Lee’s clumsy, leaden direction doesn’t help; the production not only seems like it never gets everyone on the same page, but it also feels like a page doesn’t even exist. That manifests most obviously in the uneven performances of the ensemble; there are a couple of standout performances (most notably Roxanne Martinez’s sparkplug maid, Isabella), but too often the characters seem to inhabit different universes.

It all adds up to a show that is very easy to laugh at, but very hard to invest in.

It also feels terribly out of touch with the times: Though apparently set in the not-so-distant American future, it’s a future in which print journalism, particularly the European press, holds an inordinate sense of power. That may have played 20 years ago, but any play attempting to satirize the American political process in the early 21st century that exists in a world without tweets, the Drudge Report and Jon Stewart seems woefully unsophisticated.

But it is funny. And it’s a new play by a local playwright, something in desperately short supply on the county’s stages. Those are both very good things, and Presidential Hopeless strongly suggests that Richardson has a great deal of skill, wit and literary prowess. Let’s hope he uses this first production as an opportunity to revisit his play, imbue it with more focus and ballast, and craft something that both strikes the funny bone and goes for the jugular.

Presidential Hopeless at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Sat., 9 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. $10-$12.

 
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