Electoral Dysfunctions at the Vortex Theatre
This election is tailor-made for political junkies. Tensions are running high. A lot of talking heads, generally those who aren’t actual economists, say we might be on the brink of the next Great Depression. I personally haven’t transformed my life savings—such as they are (were?)—into gold bullion and buried it in my yard, but it’s tough not to feel a certain level of panic.
To add to the drama, we’re still deeply immersed in two major wars. Many Americans believe these have been mismanaged. Regardless of your personal view, we all understand the costs have been high and will be much higher by the time these conflicts come to an end.
That’s just on the national scale. Here in New Mexico, with Sen. Pete Domenici’s looming retirement, four of our five congressional seats are up for grabs. The potential for a sea change in our federal representation is enormous.
The choices are real, and the stakes are obviously high. So is the paranoia, with both sides worried this election could be manipulated.
What better time for a short-play contest revolving entirely around the problems inherent in American democracy? The Vortex Theatre delivers. Running through the weekend before the election, Electoral Dysfunctions features eight plays by a handful of New Mexico’s finest writers, attacking this monster subject from eight unique angles.
Given the brevity of the form, it’s no surprise many of these writers have opted for humor. That’s a healthy thing. If we can’t laugh at this election-year lunacy, we’d probably have to cry, so it’s nice to have a dose of comedy to lighten the mood.
There are lots of highlights in this regard. Susan Erickson’s “Ozzy Osbourne Explains It All For You” has the dysfunctional Osbourne clan cussing its way through a jumbled analysis of assorted American crises. Joe Sackett’s “Focus” gives the audience a hilariously diverse focus group to hash out national differences on the two main presidential candidates. (As expected, the results are blurry.) In “The Booth” by Kate Horsley, a poll worker gets stranded after-hours with a voter who’s completely unfamiliar with the candidates on the ballot and instead wishes to vote for more important things, like whether a man who cheats on his girlfriend should have his genitals lopped off. Becky Mayo’s “The Value of the Vote” gets laughs by digging into the fertile ground of campaign commercials. The one-trick pony of Rich Rubin’s “Hollywood Ending” is a lengthy fantasy about which Hollywood stars would play the lead roles in this election-year drama.
Other offerings attempt to add emotional nuance—not an easy feat in this short format. Dianna Lewis’ “Car Alarm” features a stunning and disturbing performance by John Lawlor as a Cheney-esque vice president with sinister intentions toward an inventor who’s found a solution to our energy crisis. Lawlor’s V.P. borders on caricature, but he brings realistic malevolence to the role while also managing to squeeze out a bunch of good laughs.
I wish Barack Obama himself could see this play.
Despite its clunky title, to my mind “Enter on the Execution,” by Albuquerque Journal columnist and “New Mexico in Focus” co-host Gene Grant, is by far the most satisfying entry in the festival. The premise is daring. Obama is about to be inaugurated. He goes into the presidential john to take a leak. While there, he has a bizarre encounter with a janitor who’s witnessed every president since Johnson use his facilities.
Directed by Aaron Worley and starring Jermaine Washington as the president-elect, Nephele Jackson as Michelle Obama and a brilliantly intense Gorneth D’Oyley as the wise but belligerent janitor, this play digs down into both the hopes and very real fears surrounding a potential Obama presidency. “Enter on the Execution” probably has a short shelf life, but in my view it’s so perfectly in tune with the times, and the quality of D’Oyley’s performance is so impressive, that it deserves the broadest possible audience. I wish Barack Obama himself could see this play.
This is a democracy, though, so the ultimate decision is up to you. Audience members vote for their favorite short play after each performance, and the winner will receive $500 at the end of the run. Your vote counts—for this contest and for this election. The system is dysfunctional only if you refuse to pay attention.
Electoral Dysfunctions , a festival of 10-minute plays, runs through Nov. 2 at the Vortex Theatre (2004 1/2 Central SE). Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 6 p.m. All tickets are $12. A talkback with cast and crew will follow the Sunday, Oct. 19 performance. 247-8600, vortexabq.org.
Steven Robert Allen is the executive director of Common Cause New Mexico.