Snowflakes May Feel Triggered

Snowflakes May Feel Triggered
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During his inaugural address on March 4, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously warned that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." As our nation approaches the 85th anniversary of FDR's speech, fear is on the rise within the United States.

We should all stop and take a moment to thank Mel Brooks for his insistence on mocking Hitler as a way of tarnishing Nazism's place in history when he wrote the screenplay for 1967's The Producers and its subsequent adaptation for the musical stage.

Tina Rosenberg's recent OpEd piece in The New York Times entitled "Neo-Nazis in Your Streets? Send in the (Coup Clutz) Clowns" shows how carefully-targeted comedy can deliver better results than trying to shout down a political nemesis. After all, aiming satire, sarcasm, and shtick at bigots and despots has a long and proud history as effective political strategy.

Written and directed by Edward Cortés, 2007's The Clown and the Führer focuses on Charlie Rivel (Ferran Rañé), an internationally beloved clown who is summoned to perform at Hitler's birthday party. In the production notes, Cortés stresses that:

"Charlie is portrayed as a genius who has to do a constant balancing act to reconcile his art with the serious political and social events of his day. He is the creator trapped in his own creative world, the genius who focuses all the tensions, then attempts to escape them with the honesty of the only thing he knows: a sincere and professional attempt to make others laugh, trying not to hurt anyone. For a moment, he hovers over dangerous ground, that of the artist without ideology, of the creator so obsessed by his art that he forgets his environment, appearing to turn his back on the serious political and social transformations of the Second World War. But as the film goes on, we discover that below this surface appearance, Rivel is fully conscious of the tragedy of the world and of his times. He is also aware that his art is essentially just a struggle for survival, and that humor may be the only possible way out, the only light in the general gloom."
<p>Ferran Rañé as Charlie Rivel in <strong><em>The Clown and the Führer</em></strong> </p>

Ferran Rañé as Charlie Rivel in The Clown and the Führer

"What most fascinated me about this story was how it retells an encounter between Charlie Rivel and Adolf Hitler. In all history, we could hardly find two characters more diametrically opposed in what they created: one lived to make his contemporaries laugh, the other lived and died to murder and destroy them. This glance at how their paths crossed lets us recreate a small fragment of our history, and reflect anew on the often strained relationship between art and power."

* * * * * * * * *

The opening night of the 2017 San Francisco Fringe Festival included a performance of Hitler in the Green Room, a musical by Bay Area composer and satirist K. S. Haddock. Set backstage on the night before Hitler's appearance at Germany's 1933 Nuremberg Rally, Haddock's musical shows what might have happened if Hitler had actually been on his deathbed, leaving Joseph "Joe" Goebbels (Peter Sroka), Rudolf "Rudy" Hess (Rey Zegri), Ernst "Ernie" Röhm (Christopher J. Callahan), and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Jenny Rand) frantically trying to improvise.

<p>The cast of <strong><em>Hitler in the Green Room</em></strong> </p>

The cast of Hitler in the Green Room

(Photo by: Shane O'Neil)

Think of 1993's Dave, in which Kevin Kline portrayed a man whose ability to impersonate the President of the United States came in handy whenever the power-hungry Chief of Staff (Frank Langella) needed to cover up for one of the President's extramarital affairs. When the President suffered a stroke, Dave was thrust into a position of unimaginable power.

Now try to imagine what would happen if the only Hitler impersonator available at a critical moment in Nazi history was a drunk, gay, Jewish drag queen/chanteuse with diva tendencies named Marvin Shicklgruber (Colin Timmins). What could possibly go wrong if Marvin is propped up by a gaggle of goose-stepping goons wearing armbands emblazoned with swastikas?

Hitler in the Green Room's publicity material rightly claims that, in the age of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Kellyanne Conway, satire has never been more appropriate. Haddock's script contains numerous zingers (one refers to Hitler's desire to build a wall; another describes the powerfully sobering effect of an illicit medication as a "Triumph of the Pill"). A reference to Fred Trump as a possible last-minute substitute for the Führer ("I have a cousin in Queens....") draws hearty laughs. But as the performance continues, it became obvious that what may have started out as a 15-minute skit is having trouble being stretched to a full hour.

<p>The cast of <strong><em>Hitler in the Green Room</em></strong> </p>

The cast of Hitler in the Green Room

(Photo by: Shane O'Neil)

With frenzied performances by Christopher J. Callahan and Peter Sroka as Rohm and Goebbels, the show's key transformation arrives when Colin Timmins sheds his sultry cabaret singer's gown and reappears in full Nazi drag, trying out various ways to convincingly perform a Hitler salute until he finds one that glows like box office gold. Among the entertaining songs in Haddock's score are "The Road to Nuremberg," Leni Reifenstahl's slyly sarcastic "The Problem With A Man," and "Marvin's Lament." The show ends on a high note with the ensemble praising the new Führer as "More Hitler Than Hitler."

Unfortunately, the opening night performance was hampered by the amplification of the show's three-piece band (Mark Ungar, Deirdre McCarthy, and Liz Baker), which often overwhelmed the actors. The EXIT Theatre is a small and intimate room that has trouble sustaining too much volume without suffering a certain amount of sound distortion. This was a classic demonstration of how less volume could deliver more laughs.

* * * * * * * * *

Five years ago, I was introduced to the Naked Empire Bouffon Company when they presented the world premiere of You Killed Hamlet, or Guilty Creatures Sitting At A Play at the 2012 San Francisco Fringe Festival. The group's theatrical style builds on a solid foundation of lewd, crude, and rude shenanigans reaching as far back in time as the Commedia dell'arte. Their dramatic goal is to combine social activism with physically grotesque satire that is provocative, guilt-inducing, and ridiculously threatening.

Continuing in their take-no-prisoners approach to subversive clowning, Naked Empire Bouffon Company returned to the San Francisco Fringe Festival this month with You Fucking Earned It (Behind Every Great Citizen is a Great Consumer), a new show written by Cara McClendon, Nathaniel Justiniano, and Sabrina Wenske which mocks everything from today's rampant neediness to our society's overweening sense of entitlement. With a hilarious pantomime depicting the birth and death of civilizations ranging from the "fertile crescent" of Ancient Egypt up to contemporary America, the show starred Sabrina Wenske as Lil Queef and Cara McClendon as WeEvil.

<p>Sabrina Wenske (Lil Queef) and Cara McClendon (WeEvil) co-star in <strong><em>You Fucking Earned It</em></strong> </p>

Sabrina Wenske (Lil Queef) and Cara McClendon (WeEvil) co-star in You Fucking Earned It

Whether impersonating sex slaves, orangutans, black holes, or preening yoga moms, the two clowns go about explaining America's long and unfortunate history of economic imperialism with graphic depictions of the banana trade and an edgy performance of the "other" verses written by Katharine Lee Bates for "America the Beautiful." Their performance of "Hungry Mungry" transforms Shel Silverstein's poem into a timely and jaw-dropping demonstration of agitprop theatre.

I tip my hat to Wenske and McClendon, two agile and absolutely fearless clowns who are perfectly at ease riffing with their audience, leading spectators to the edge of a dramatic precipice and then letting them teeter on the edge of discomfort before dragging them onstage to participate in a "spontaneous theatrical event" that makes use of smartphones (in a deliciously subversive way) to prop up their sense of self-importance. If theatrical pablum is your favorite form of entertainment, head for another theatre where you can cling to the fourth wall for safety. You Fucking Earned It is devilishly dangerous theatre.

<p>Poster art for <strong><em>You Fucking Earned It</em></strong> </p>

Poster art for You Fucking Earned It

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