Blind Parrot Productions

“The news,” as George Bush’s campaign managers understood perfectly, isn’t just what happens; it’s how events are reported, how information is marketed, and how the public responds to it all. “The news” may be what someone did, or just what someone said–or what someone didn’t say. “The news” may be reality, or it may be illusion–or once in a great while, it may be the exposure of the reality behind an illusion.

Blind Parrot’s Exploits of a Living Newspaper seeks to examine the often hypocritical process by which “the news” is created and reported. Inspired by the “living newspaper” productions of the Depression-era Federal Theater Project–plays with titles like One Third of a Nation, Power, Medicine Show, and Spirochete–Exploits is specifically based on the project’s script 1935, a recap of news of that year. Blind Parrot’s script–collectively written under the editorial guidance of Diana Spinrad–parallels the events of 1935 and 1988. In a series of sketches, it tries to get behind the common perception of those events to the truth behind the image.

So we see the election-year run-in between Vice President Bush and TV interviewer Dan Rather from the alarmed perspective of Rather’s producer: “I tell him not to, so he does,” she says of Rather’s insistence on asking Bush about the Iran-contra scandal. So, too, we see the Reagan-Gorbachev summit and public-relations competition from the point of view of Mrs. Reagan’s mincing fashion designer (who ends up going to work for Mrs. Gorbachev). The media’s skillful manipulation of Oliver North is paralleled with the jingoism of Bruno Hauptmann’s prosecutor; the southern-fried demagoguery of today’s Jimmy Swaggart with yesteryear’s Huey Long; the death-inflicting silence surrounding AIDS today with that surrounding syphilis 50 years ago. Depictions of the Depression’s homelessness and poverty give us intimations of a possible near future. (Exploits is only one of several shows this season to come up with that notion.)

The production veers unevenly between the serious and the satiric. The serious sections are far more effective–an evocation of the horrors of the 1930s chain gangs, an account of an impoverished mother who drowned her starving baby (though why the authors missed the connection between that incident and today’s abortion debate I don’t know), an affecting monologue by a disillusioned Swaggart follower. The attempts at satire are generally limp and adolescent. An attempt to spoof Dan Quayle’s unfitness for office falls flat, for instance, because it paints Quayle as so much more of a buffoon than he is, while the running bit about Mrs. Reagan’s designer sinks under its own homophobic stereotyping. Good satire convinces through logic–it assumes the audience doesn’t agree with the satirist and must be swayed; this stuff is just preaching to the converted. (A nice exception is the script’s treatment of the brouhaha over art student David Nelson’s portrait of Harold Washington as a transvestite: here, Nelson and his friends are black and the rabble-rousing picture pinchers are white ethnics.)

The production, directed by Steve Vasse-Hansell and Terry Walcutt, is solid and ambitious: like the old Federal Theater shows, it tends toward the epic, with a big cast and sweeping tableaux (there are also slides of news photos projected above the stage action). But finally what one remembers from Exploits of a Living Newspaper are the small moments: Patti Hannon as the Swaggart follower, Larry Neumann Jr. as a gaunt VD victim, Adrianne Krstansky as Swaggart’s disgusted whore, Alfred Wilson as the chain-gang convict Angelo Herndon. When Exploits of a Living Newspaper goes beyond “the news” to show us real people reacting to a real world, it makes its point very tellingly indeed.