Showing much theatrical bravery is Freedom Club, a new play by Adriano Shapin, mounted by Philly-based troupe New Paradise Laboratories and New York’s Riot Group as a Live Arts centerpiece. Their collaboration is certainly provocative, mirroring the festered political boil that American politics has become.
Act I plays with our collective psyche with no less a sacred image than Abraham Lincoln skulking around as in a Greek tragedy, wracked with uncertainty that he presides over a broken empire. (The year is 1865.)
As Lincoln, Elliot Drew Freidman goes for much more that a haunted image of the president. The play’s back half is set in the future, with some not so shocking self-fulfilled prophesies about where we will be as an even more divided nation.
Director Whit MacLaughlin keeps the action at a fevered pitch in the front half. Lincoln looms, top-hat bowed in shame – one of many symbolic images that punches you in the gut. It brings to mind ’where did we go wrong?’ from our perception of Lincoln’s vision. From those startling contemplations, we are then treated to a sexually repressed Abe and Mary Todd pathetically, if not humorously, trying to get each other off. So much for Walt Whitman.
Loitering in his own follow spot is John Wilkes Booth, played with volcanic intensity by Jeb Kreager. Kreager is masterfully stealth in a mannered interpretation of a political monster that Shaplin makes appear to come out of our current political landscape. Ambitious material, without doubt.
Lincoln ruminates on a country divided by race and reflects on his attempt at reparations to black Americans, as if it could possibly make up for the atrocities they withstood. He grieves with the knowledge that the country is forever divided and that he is authoring a pipe-dream union.
Booth lunges toward Shakespearean madness, concocting an internalized manifesto of political vengeance. All rationale is aimed at hurling racist bile (and the ’n’ word) as he lusts over his sister or fornicates anything in a hoop-skirt.
Aside from Kreager, six other players take various roles in Booth and Lincoln’s orbit. The staging is witty with its use of 19th century silhouettes in key moments and mime. And there’s inspired comic relief: one moment has a goofy Lincoln watch two actresses in My American Cousin taking pratfalls immediately before he is shot; another has Booth finish a rant with Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell (intoning more, more, more). But, things get clammy as the Shaplin’s breathless polemics take over, as as the act careens toward Lincoln’s fait accompli.
In Act II, abortion is the political flashpoint as a feminist militia tries to create a safe passage for women seeking them. In Shaplin’s future world, liberals have been politically castrated, the religious right has taken over the halls of government and women have no rights over their bodies. None of the characters communicate, but everybody is ranting.
MacLaughlin, so inventive in the first half, can only stiffly stage the action as the rhetoric engulfs like wildfire. Freedom Club ultimately limits itself to carpet-bombing the audience with the same message. Still, for this take-no-prisoners political play in perilous times, NPL and TRG is to be commended.