"Adopt-a-Candidate": Surprises from Underground Theatre

Last night I attended "Adopt-a-Candidate" at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre here in the D. of C., only eight blocks from the White House.

This fifth performance by the eXtreme eXchange theatre troupe (founded 2004) explored electoral politics through discussion-provoking mini-plays. Six playwrights were given a choice of three 2008 presidential candidates, then had three weeks to choose one and put together a sketch.

Producer Gwen Grastorf told me that by and large, the troupe's members are not politically oriented. This is their way of getting more involved in politics. (One giveaway was when one of the actors referred to the Kos in "Yearly Kos" as kaws, not kose, the real pronunciation for those in the know.) I myself can relate, living in D.C., but not being in politics.

The subjects of the sketches were Dennis Kucinich, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Mike Gravel, Mike Huckabee and John McCain. The plays were surprisingly high-concept for this sort of thing, with lots of action and humor. Some had a mile-wide dark streak, however (a plan to burn Hillary at the stake; John McCain reunited with his captors in Vietnam).

The plays all touched on themes that fly around our Off The Bus project: cynicism about underdog candidates' frantic search for a winning issue; the dilemma of which constituency to try to please the most; the predominance of "impressions" over issues in the media; the importance of money to a candidate's fortunes; and the value of a candidate's integrity to real voters, but not to the electoral machine.

The roughly 100-member audience for this spectacle was, predictably for guerrilla theatre, made up of student-looking people and bohemians, mostly on the young side and very enthusiastic.

The Q&A session could (almost) only have happened in wonk-heavy Washington. I think 95 percent of the audience stayed for it, and I'm pretty sure every single person said something -- and something more-or-less astute, novel and thought-provoking, e.g., comparing Huckabee with Reagan on high likeability factor paired with unappetizing policies, or making a sophisticated comment about the similarity between reasons people historically persecuted "witches" (they are "conniving" and "we don't understand them") and the reasons some people are suspicious of Hillary.

During the Q&A, I polled the audience and found out that only a few work on campaigns right now, and only about 10 work in politics in general (someone asked "You mean for pay?").

When I asked the producers, in front of the audience, if a straw poll of who everyone was voting for would be okay, some bossy know-it-all in the audience sneered, "I don't think that's appropriate in this venue," so the producer rephrased the question for me: "Okay, then, how many of you are undecided?"

A huge majority raised their hands. Based on my recent Facebook straw poll, I thought everyone would be rooting for Barack Obama. But no one even chose to do a play about him.

The producers are self-conscious about the fact that most everyone in this theatre cooperative is liberal, and so they went out of their way to include an even share of Republican candidates in the mix.

When they asked the audience whom they would vote for based on the plays they had just seen, the answer was John McCain. (And Mike Huckabee took second place!) McCain's character came off best in his sketch, and the audience was honest enough and open-minded enough to acknowledge it, even though I'm pretty sure they would never vote for him in real life.

Speaking of which: Poor Mike Gravel took a wicked beating in his play and in the Q&A, where the producers went play-by-play, but skipped him by mistake. I mean, what's the point of making fun of Mike Gravel? You must laugh with him, not at him, right? "How could I forget him?" Glastorf exclaimed, slapping her forehead. The audience laughed loud and long. Then she said they had wanted to invite him (because they do like him, and "he lives right over in Arlington") but thought better of it.

Someone yelled out "Would anyone know it was him?" to a loud "Oooooooo" from the audience.

Tough crowd here in D.C. Tough, and still undecided, it seems.