Cloud 42

at the Halsted Theatre Centre

Pundits were quick to proclaim this “the year of the woman,” as the Democratic and Republican conventions both put their best female faces front and center. But those who watched the blue-blazered brownshirts cheering Pat Buchanan’s declaration of cultural war might suggest a second slogan for this election season: the year of the fascist.

Political Axe, the Cloud 42 theater company’s program of solo one-acts, takes a caustic look at both these political trends. This double-edged Axe pairs Second Lady, M. Kilburg Reedy’s monologue by a Democratic vice-presidential candidate’s wife, with The David Duke Songbook, a purported intimate encounter with the former Ku Klux Klan leader and recent Republican gubernatorial and presidential candidate.

Of the two, David Duke cuts far more sharply, with more accurate aim and clearer purpose. Adapted by Cloud 42’s Nathan Rankin, Michael Regier, and Patrick Trettenero and performed with engaging aplomb and shrewdly understated comic timing by the tall, blond Regier under Trettenero’s well-paced direction, it takes its text from Duke’s own statements during interviews and public appearances.

The setting is Duke’s office in Metairie, Louisiana, where he is entertaining supporters with a casual concert of his favorite show tunes. With an ingratiating smile that turns quizzical as he reflects on how he’s been misunderstood, Duke intersperses musical selections with personal commentary–obviously welcoming the chance to speak to his public directly, instead of through the distorting filter of the “liberal media.” Unabashed about his “interest in white Christian heritage preservation,” he resolutely rejects his reputation for racial and religious intolerance; and though he doesn’t make a point of saying so, his musical interludes are (new) testament to his open-mindedness. He draws heavily on Jewish songwriters–George Gershwin, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne–and on black jazz and blues styles as he tinkles his way through such autobiographically tinged tunes as “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” “High Hopes” (complete with audience sing-along), “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and “They All Laughed” (“Ho ho ho–who’s got the last laugh now?”).

Conservative? Yes, and proud of it. But a racist? Not at all, he insists. He’s sensitive about the Holocaust (though “the atrocities are greatly exaggerated”). He backed Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court: “He supports equal rights for the best qualified. . . . The only thing wrong with him is, I think it’s unfortunate he’s married to a white woman.” And despite his racially skewed political base–he did get 55 percent of the white vote in the Louisiana governor’s race, after all–his interests are what’s best for every American. The welfare system is as ruinous to blacks as to whites; so is racial interbreeding. It all comes down to family values: “We have to live like our fathers lived.” And though his impetuous youthful embrace of charged symbolic trappings like Klan robes and Nazi swastikas makes mainstream pols keep him at a distance, he notes with a smile of sly pleasure, “I’ve managed to capture the attention of the top brass of the Republican Party.” And so he has.

The relevance that makes David Duke such chillingly ironic theater is sorely missing from the far less effective Second Lady. In a season when women in politics are asserting a grittier and more prominent presence than ever, this portrait of a dithery, stressed-out candidate’s wife seems unintentionally almost as reactionary as Duke’s racial rhetoric. Reedy’s script is nearly a decade old, and its age shows. “Kathy Erskine” is the long-suffering spouse of a pompous candidate for the vice presidency; drafted to fill in for her husband at a League of Women Voters meeting, she finds that in her rush she’s misplaced the text of his speech. So she wings it, and as she does, her Sally Sorority veneer gradually peels and cracks to reveal anguish, insecurity, and loneliness.

Improvising on the subject of volunteerism, she reminisces about how she met her husband-to-be through college activism–and waited to catch him on the rebound, despite her own conviction that she wasn’t good enough for him. Touching on the topic of two-career marriages, she recalls giving up her own teaching job to devote herself to hubby’s rise to power. As the cost of that sacrifice to her own already low self-esteem and emotional stability becomes more apparent, she gradually falls apart on the stage.

Modeled on no one in particular, Kathy does intermittently suggest Martha Mitchell, Betty Ford, Pat Nixon, and Kitty Dukakis (she seems on the verge of hauling a bottle of shoe polish out of her purse and taking a swig at any moment, though she never does). She’s certainly a far cry from such strong-willed women as Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, and Marilyn Quayle. Quayle’s precedent-setting speech at the Republican convention would seem at first an apt parallel to Second Lady; but Quayle’s slight suggestions of bitterness about the sacrifice of her own career on behalf of her husband’s carry far more dramatic interest than Second Lady’s tediously bathetic melodramatics. Fran Martone’s performance, under Jerome Stauduhar’s direction, jerks from mood to mood without indicating the turbulent currents that propel Kathy’s emotional changes; she’s just a package of stereotyped bits and pieces, not a whole person gradually disintegrating.

Luckily The David Duke Songbook takes up the second half of the evening, giving Political Axe a resonance that its audience can carry home with them. In this fine piece of political humor being funny is a way of being deadly serious, and far from indulging in any cheap-shot dismissal of Duke as a fringe fluke it underscores his prescient understanding of the 90s’ volatile politics. “If the ideals I stand for are addressed,” Duke says, “then I’ll be only a footnote in history. But if the deterioration of the middle class continues–I will be president.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joseph A. Nicita.