Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

Dispatch from Lesser Pandemonia

The nation cringes from the brinksmanship of election denial. Isn't there a show about that?


I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT THE EVENTS OF THE PAST WEEK have left me more than a little wrung out and hung up to dry. It’s as if we’ve all tumbled into one of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next or Nursery Crime novels, in which real life and fictional life coexist, and characters from one scamper into the other with reckless abandon, upsetting applecarts both real and imagined as they either sow or stop chicanery, which has a nasty habit of spreading like a literary plague. Something Rotten, perhaps; or The Well of Lost Plots.

The world of politics has always borrowed freely from the worlds of fiction and theater, but rarely with the force and impact of right now. We’re in Melodrama Land, teetering precariously between tragedy and comedy, and not at all sure which is going to prevail by the time the final curtain falls. Any competent critic would point out that the plot to this play is outlandish. And any competent observer would reply that of course that’s true, and yet here it all is, actually happening, and it’s just a little too Stephen King for comfort, thank you very much.

Quick recap: Yes, we had an election, which went roughly according to predictions. Early returns, based on ballots cast in person on Election Day, favored the President in some key states. But later votes, tabulated from mail-in ballots and other forms of delivery, swung the vote in favor of the challenger. This occurred in spite of a concerted effort on the part of the party in power to suppress the vote through various tactics: In spite of this, more people voted than ever before. As the tallies made it obvious that the incumbent had lost, the President – who had prepared for this eventuality with a host of apocalyptic and spurious warnings that his challengers were preparing to steal the election – simply refused to accept the vote and concede the election. The members of his party stood solidly behind him in this fiction, and the wheels of orderly transition screeched to a halt. As the words “potential coup” began to be whispered across the land, the president’s brinksmanship brought the nation to the edge of constitutional crisis. What could be more unnervingly theatrical than that?

But, wait: Something’s pressing down upon the body politic! John Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare,” 1781, oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts.

As we journey into the dramatic possibilities of this sobering series of events, let Henry Fuseli be our visual guide. Fuseli, the Swiss and later British painter of the 18th and early 19th centuries, was something of a rock star of his day as an artist. As a teacher he influenced both John Constable and William Blake, which suggests a creative tension between traditionally formal balance and radically ecstatic genius. He also was enamored with the theater, especially Shakespeare, and painted many vivid scenes from the plays, both comic and dramatic: Lady Macbeth taking the daggers from her husband’s trembling hands. Romeo stabbing Paris at Juliet’s bier. Titania and Bottom tripping the light fantastic. If anyone can make visual sense of These Dramatic Times, Fuseli’s our guy.

Art, of course, reflects the culture from which it rises, and while fear and trembling grip the body politic, eager producers and investors already have several topical plays or movies in development. ArtsWatch has learned, from slippery sources inside the industry that declined to be named for fear of losing all semblance of credibility, of a handful of such projects in the works:

THE MISERIES. An update of Les Misérables, in which the relentless Javert is not a police inspector on the trail of a fellow who once stole a loaf of bread but a national leader who, having been deposed by voters, stubbornly refuses to leave, concocting “proofs” of “treachery” as he digs in his heels and attempts to reinvent reality. Guest-starring Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who pop in every now and again, exclaim, “Who IS this guy?,” and then vamoose.

MOURNING BECOMES ELECTORS. The Ghost of Eugene O’Neill is suffering an enormous writer’s block as he prepares his long-awaited sequel to Mourning Becomes Electra. He’s aware that his storyline is little more than a string of classical Greek whoppers, and yet he must make it seem somehow believable. He is stuck between two possible outcomes. In the first, the fear that rogue electors will ignore the vote of their states’ citizens and cast their electoral ballots instead in favor of the outvoted incumbent proves well-founded, and the nation is thrown into constitutional crisis as it careers toward Hell in a self-woven handbasket. In the second, the electors do their duty, vote as the citizens they represent voted, and crisis is averted. This latter is the ending O’Neill’s Ghost truly wishes to write, but he’s afraid it’s anticlimactic, and the show will bomb.

BUSTED STOP. In this updated sequel to William Inge’s Bus Stop, an entire nation trapped inside an antiquated roadside diner called the Electoral College Cafe reveals its inner deeds and desires, decides that a vote actually means a vote, and then, enlightened, busts out and heads for the hills, determined not to let the greasy spoon ever imperil its collective stomach again.

THE FOURPENNY OPERA. In this eagerly awaited followup to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, Pirate Jenny turns state’s witness and lays out the details of Mack the Knife’s complex plot to invent a trail of faked stolen ballots and use this spurious “evidence” to overturn the election. Prosecutors figure their case is a slam dunk. But the judge turns out to be a very recent political appointee, and Mack is found not guilty on all counts, after which he promptly plays a victory round of golf and returns to his same old same old. Jenny, fearing for her life, skulks down to the harbor and stows away on a three-master headed for Far Tortuga, or maybe Lilliput.

OUR ‘BURB. A new drama built on the model of Our Town but updated to reflect current demographic realities. Our ‘Burb tells the tale of a small-time grifter who, believing himself to be an irresistible ladies’ man, pitches woo to the women of suburbia to put him over the top in his quest for electoral office. Suburban women, no fools they, snub the guy en masse. By the end of the play, which takes place improbably in a graveyard, most everyone has died. But it’s OK, because the grifter’s hopes for victory die, too.

SHAMILTON. A rap-inspired musical drawn partly from the pages of The Art of the Deal, this show celebrates the creation of a new nation by a small group of wealthy landowners and hyper-successful businessmen through the adoption of an economic funnel that sucks money out of the pockets of the poor and middle classes and into the bank accounts of the rich. Its hit tunes My Way or the Highway and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break are hailed as chart-toppers, although there are mutterings inside the music industry that the numbers are manipulated and Payola is involved.


Metropolitan Youth Symphony Music Concert Rooted Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

FALSTAFF FROM THE HEIGHTS. In this modern musical remake of The Merry Wives of Windsor (which was itself, as legend has it, a spinoff from the Henry plays, ordered for the new season by Good Queen Bess herself) the bulbous and intrusive interloper who’s overstayed his welcome is simply tossed out with the dirty laundry, and everyone else lives happily ever after – lawyers and sycophantic political appointees be damned.

Well, a fellow can dream, can’t he?

In the end, perhaps, it all gets cleaned up and tossed out amid a happy ending: Henry Fuseli, “Falstaff in the Washbasket,” 1792, oil on canvas, 53.9 x 66.9 inches, Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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