The full cast of Freedom Club. Photo by James Jackson.
BOTTOM LINE: A terse and tidy absurdist exploration of America's extremist tendencies.
"You need an actor to save you," a Will Ferrell look-alike of the Weatherman variety declares early on during the performance of Freedom Club. And indeed, someone who acts can be just what the doctor ordered for ailing countries, but if acting alone, those someones can also be the weak link that brings down the whole system. This multifarious gamut of extremism in America is amusingly explored in New Paradise Laboratories and The Riot Group's taut production now playing at The Connelly Theatre.
A 75-minute, moving tableau that begins in 1865 leading up to Lincoln's assassination and ends in a not-so-distant-or-different 2015, this parable serves as a firm reminder that polarized, violent extremism has never been too far from the American pulse. Jeb Kreager's sweaty and passionate John Wilkes Booth is the perfect egomaniacal actor: so quiveringly self-involved in the "act" he's defined for himself, he rebukes his own family when questioned about his bizarrely frenetic goal. Jump ahead a hundred or so years and Kreager plays the staunchly left Jeremiah, who begs his so-called militant compound members outside of DC to finally take some decisive action after too long merely protesting the closing of the final Virginian abortion clinic. Whether left or right, the topicality and obsession of political beliefs and their unwavering ability to invite anarchy throughout America's short history is less-than-subtly illustrated, though quite enjoyably so.
Written with punchy, uber-contemporary dialogue, interspersed with moments of heightened poetic prose from the most dangerously passionate, Adriano Shaplin's script is delightfully unfettered and unpretentious. Freedom Club fairly pokes fun at both red and blue and their collective inability to see past bootstraps or bellies, let alone understand a united country's necessity for compromise. Vapidity and absurdity in extremis sadly ring all too true and all too American.
Shaplin's only slightly skewed play-world, where pro-choice activists aren't allowed to have children because it doesn't support the cause, smarts with a touch too much candor. When did the "real fight" become so porous, gnawed through by vermin-holes of teeny topical issues? Perhaps it was always this way. But left with just center as an option, it seems, will Americans and America simply, eventually, self-destruct or will compromise and dialogue become more than just empty political buzzwords? Shaplin illuminates few answers, though the play's conclusion offers up a wealth of additional questions surrounding centrism and governmental agencies.
An interesting tangential element, too, is Booth's Bard-obsession as reason for his actions. "Shakespeare is making me do things," Booth dramatically proclaims, "he unlocks my mind from false notions…telling me what tyranny is and he tells us: Kill all kings." Whether historically accurate or not, this obsessed–artist facet of Booth in Shaplin's rendition of the event adds color and depth.
Simplistically staged, with the north and south divide cleanly portrayed by a simple piece of white gaff-tape, juxtaposed with finely detailed period costumes, the actors are beautifully backlit and finely choreographed, often emulating an early silent film. Director Whit MacLaughlin's interesting blocking makes good use of the talented ensemble cast, who ably and charismatically play off one another, despite most dialogues being delivered facing the audience.
Though an embarrassing reminder of our country's polarity and short-sightedness, Freedom Club snarkily seeks to limit that dismal historical repetition. And whether successful or not in the bigger picture, it certainly succeeds in delivering a satisfying evening.
(Freedom Club plays at The Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street between Avenues A and B, through January 15, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 7PM and 10PM, and Sundays at 4PM and 7PM. Tickets are $12 to $20 (pay what you can) and are available at BrownPaperTickets.com or by calling 718.289.4167.)