Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.


Also see Susan's review of An Enemy of the People and In the Mood

Joe Cronin, Theodore M. Snead, Maura Stadem and J.J. Area
With its wildly funny production of MacBird!, American Century Theatre in Arlington, Va., once again lives up to its goal of returning notable but neglected 20th-century American plays to the stage. Barbara Garson's 1967 satire, conflating then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson with William Shakespeare's Macbeth, was incendiary in its own time, and – despite the obviously dated topical references —still says a lot about the dark corners of the political process.

Part of the fascination of the play, as directed by Ellen Dempsey, comes from digging through the various strata of the satire. The bedrock is Garson's original text, which lightly tweaks Shakespeare's own words for her own purposes (a prologue from Henry V here, a plot strand from Hamlet there). Another layer comes from the author's prescience: she makes reference to things that she could not have known at the time would actually come to pass. The third level is the director's timely additions, including atmospheric sound effects and a well-placed pretzel. The actors are all on the same page, never making the mistake of not playing their roles broadly enough.

Garson doesn't only skewer the arrogant, driven Texan MacBird (Joe Cronin) and his steel-magnolia wife, Lady MacBird (Charlotte Akin), whose madness manifests itself in the real Lady Bird Johnson's roadside beautification program. The playwright's message is more "a plague on all your houses": the handsome, virile, young king, John Ken O'Dunc (Robert Rector), and his resolute brother Bobby (Joshua Drew), are smug, condescending womanizers, while youngest brother Teddy (Steven McWilliams) is depicted as an overgrown child playing with toys.

Garson also tweaks the political activism of her own era, using three pot-addled hippies (Maura Stadem, Theodore M. Snead, J.J. Area) in place of Shakespeare's witches. They prophesy about the Watts riots of 1965 and college students' attempts to stop troop trains taking soldiers to "Viet Land"; their incantation is "Bubble and bubble, toil and trouble, Burn baby burn, and caldron bubble."

The downside to producing such a timely work is that a lot of viewers are too young to know the history of the minor characters, amusing though they are. How many people today remember maverick U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse, here portrayed by Jay Tilley as a singing, swaggering "warrior for peace" in a kilt, or will know that the spotlight-chasing "Egg of Head" (Brian Crane) is former U.N. Ambassador and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson?

Thomas B. Kennedy's scenic design neatly sets up the sense of the drama: a cartoonish backdrop depicting the White House with its columns cracked, and the Capitol and Washington Monument knocked off their foundations. Sound designer Matt Otto matches the mood throughout, opening with Jimi Hendrix's blistering rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner performed at Woodstock.

The program notes point out that, before MacBird!, satire aimed at a sitting U.S. president was rare. This play changed society's whole outlook, to the point where some people today find the most truthful political reporting on television comedy shows.

American Century Theatre
September 8th —October 7th
By Barbara Garson
MacBird: Joe Cronin
Lady MacBird: Charlotte Akin
John Ken O'Dunc: Robert Rector
Bobby Ken O'Dunc: Joshua Drew
Teddy Ken O'Dunc: Steven McWilliams
Crony: Colby Codding
Wayne of Morse/Earl of Warren: Jay Tilley
Egg of Head: Brian Crane
Witch 1: Maura Stadem
Witch 2: Theodore M. Snead
Witch 3: J.J. Area
Aide: Alex Perez
Aide 2/Senator: Theo Hadjimichel
Daughter 1: Suzanne Edgar
Daughter 2: Anne Nottage
Ensemble: Brian Crane, Suzanne Edgar, Anne Nottage, Jay Tilley
Directed by Ellen Dempsey
Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-553-8782 or

Photo: Jeff Bell Photography

-- Susan Berlin

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.

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