Aug 12, 2011

Our Man (the Gipper!)

On one level, it's an enjoyably absurd play with gunfire patter between two clownish radio announcers in white button-downs. On another level, it's a political analogy that invites further dialogue about the themes. On the level of the absolutely transcendentally absurd, it is a play about the life, death, and legend of a wooden tennis racket. This racket is introduced as "Our man -- the Gipper! But first, some background: our man was raised in the small town of Tempeka, Illinois...", and off we go.

Our Man was brought to the Berkshire Fringe festival by Goat in the Road, a performance company from New Orleans. This two-man show is by Will Bowling and Chris Kaminstein, playing two 1950's-style radio announcers trapped in a 5x5x5 Plexiglass box. The play is about political image, what the back-story of a political figure means and how they are objectified (as a racket? yes! the Gipper!) to be used by the public for whatever they need. While the two announcers are making up a fantastic backstory for the racket, getting breathless on the sensationalistic gossip... they're just creating an absolute rhapsodic opus of bullshit, details details details filling the frame with American sentimentality gilding. Even the most aloof audience knows to laugh at this galloping-paced absurdity.

The character of The Gipper is loosely based on Ronald Reagan, a great political figure in that he effectively utilized modern means of broadcasting his image to the American public. But why use the medium of radio in this play if Reagan appeared primarily on television? As I learned when I talked to Kaminstein, Reagan actually got his start as a 1930's sports announcer on the radio. A radio announcer then would get reels of ticker-tape play-by-play of the game, composed mostly of numbers with a few simple phrases to delineate action; the announcer would fill in the storytelling holes himself. So embellishment was an inherent part of the job, and Reagan acquired a temperament that never wanted facts and accountability to get in the way of a good story.

Kaminstein also explained that the piece is trying to show the process by which we create grand images of public figures, willing to tear them down on any impulse. We will then find someone new, build them up, and tear them down. The surreal, isolated setting of the piece brings out the blatant delusion of this, as the two men are completely fixated on this one powerful, enigmatic, influential, controversial figure who is really just... a racket. The racket has knowledge of its own racketness, while also being endowed with a historical background and implied personality as if it were human. Though this never actually makes the audience feel empathy for the racket, it does allow for some moments of hilarious gravitas... the slow, slow, slow death ooze down the front of the Plexiglass box, all eyes riveted on a falling racket... audience tittering nervously and breaking out in spasms of laughter, unsure why this scene has to last for just as many seconds as it does.

It is tempting to compare the racket's influence to the Bush administration as well, particularly the Florida vote-miscounting scandal at the start of his second term.There is a point where the two men in the box are both trying to run for election (for an inconsequential position, Supervisor of Mail Sorters, when no-one ever sorts the mail anyway). They create too many rules for the voting and twist themselves up in the logistics. There is a moment of self-conscious clarity when one of them says, "Well, I wanted to use one or both of my votes for me, but once again the hand of big government is over-regulating things." Kaminstein said that they definitely had Bush in their minds as inspiration during this, although this particular sequence was not intended to allude to that. However, for a show meant to provoke questions and make connections to politics and behavior in real life, it's still not a useless impression.

Kaminstein says, "My favorite kind of theater, the theater that really inspires me, is when you're plonked down in the middle of an alien world, with an alien language, with one hour -- go." These radio announcers exist in a Beckett-esque purgatory of misinformation and delusion. Their unique brand of precise, rapid physical theater does often feel like something from a surreal alien world. The characters don't actually do any work except make up stories about the life of this racket, go over and over arbitrary rules and "fight" out petty rivalry, and perform peppy shows for an audience that they can't see (not the audience in the theater, the audience assumably listening to the radio broadcast). It's a relationship like that in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in an endless and hopelessly circuitous setting.

Both announcers end up trying to use the racket's image and personality to their own ends, vying for power in this tiny, isolated world. As this goes on, they turn against the racket and use it as a springboard to vent feelings toward each other. They mock it, scream at it, bang it on the floor, grovel to it, and eventually kill it (the slow, slow, slow death ooze...) After his death, of course the Gipper is mythologized and idealized into an even grander figure than he was in "life."

A really fascinatingly silly, hyperactively intelligent piece.

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