There’s a reason actors refer to a “thrust” stage: It not only thrusts movement out toward the crowd but tends to thrust stage business right into audience members’ faces.
That’s never been truer than at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, where the season-opening “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” bursts at you like a Roman candle aimed between your eyes.
The performers embrace the madness of Alex Timbers’ Tony-nominated script with malicious glee, as the seventh president of the United States gets turned an egotist fit to stand with Napoleon.
Director Chip Decker whips the show into a lather that begins even before the metaphoric curtain rises. By the end, we’re left to contemplate the big achievements and barbaric side of the man who expanded American territory, wreaked havoc on native Americans and substituted “gogue” for the last five letters of “democracy.”
You walk into what looks like an impromptu concert/party, with the band onstage playing songs – it was rocking “Man of Constant Sorrow” when I entered – and audience members cornholing (trying to toss sacks through an opening in a board). Those who succeeded got a free beer at the saloon alongside the stage, which stays open throughout the intermissionless show – not that anyone dared to leave a seat and break the spell.
Bo Broadwell makes a ferocious ATC debut as a Jackson with short hair, a shorter attention span and an even shorter fuse. The play makes a case that he does represent the average American of his time (and perhaps today): He sees things he wants, takes them and finds justifications afterward.
Thus he attacks the Spanish and native Americans, claiming huge tracts of land in the process, blows off Congress and the Supreme Court and runs singlemindedly for president after wife Rachel (Nicia Carla) begs him to spend more time with his family. (I have no idea whether that last bit is true.)
Playwright Timbers and composer-lyricist Michael Friedman draw parallels between Jackson’s time and ours: threats from abroad defined as terrorism, concerns about securing our borders, a Congress at odds with the White House, a virtual class war between the struggling populace and a greedy elite.
Decker underlines the link to Barack Obama by placing portraits of Jackson around the walls with the motto “Hope.” The play doesn’t draw parallels between the two men – well, I suppose it does, if you think Obama is power-mad – but it definitely links their eras on the historical continuum.
There’s a reason Friedman’s score did not get nominated for a Tony: About half the songs are punk outbursts, and you won’t understand the lyrics if you sit (as I did) close to the speakers. Yet the other half includes gentler ballads and a disturbing number titled “Ten Little Indians,” in which tribes quietly die off under Jackson’s orders.
Few shows rely so heavily on an energetic, flexible ensemble as this one; only Broadwell plays the same character throughout, and the others switch wigs and clothes manically. Even the band takes a more active role than mere musicianship; guitarist Matt Carlson prances around as Jackson’s fey predecessor in office (John Queeny Adams, I suppose).
One sad historical note: The show locates the Waxhaws, where Jackson was born, in Tennessee. People hereabout know the region sits on the North/South Carolina line. But after this musical gets around, locals will probably be just as happy to let that error pass.
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