With the presidential election only a few weeks away, it’s easy to see the battle between Romney and Obama becoming increasingly bitter, ruthless or, frankly, absurd. Forget about all of that. These boys are but docile lambs, feeble filibusters and infirmed old grannies compared to the badassery that is Andrew Jackson. Take out any $20 bill. I dare you. Look into Old Hickory’s penetrating irises. Are your eyes bleeding yet? They should be. That’s how much power Andrew Jackson has. Over the course of his life, he is rumored to have killed at least 13 men in duels. When a man tried to assassinate him in 1835, Jackson turned the tides and beat the shit out of him with a cane. In fact, Jackson was so larger-than-life, that same year, he held a party at the White House that included a 1,400 pound block of cheese. Nothing could stop him — save for tuberculosis and heart failure in 1845.
It should go without saying, but Andrew Jackson was a man of immense bombast, and that is exactly the kind of Jackson we get in SF Playhouse’s hilarious production of the historical farce/emo-rock musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Written by Alex Timbers, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, the Tony-nominated show could not be better suited for San Francisco — a city rife with humor and irreverence. And with SF Playhouse’s new, state-of-the-art theater at 450 Post Street, the venue fits the ambition of the plays titular character. Or, so I thought.
There are not enough positive superlatives in the English dictionary to grace “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” so let’s get some out of the way. It’s stupendous, laugh-out-loud funny, thrilling, strange and other blurb-ready bon mots. The look of the stage, with its monolithic dome of steel and crystal chandeliers, presented the perfect steampunk palace. The costumes, with a contemporary and casual mix of rhinestones and denim, befit the overall self-consciously ironic tone of the show. However, though these elaborate dressings heighten this carnivalesque experience, the real pleasure of the show is found in the lead performances.
This is not a play with goals of realism. That much is clear with lines like “James Monroe was a douchebag” and “He makes Jefferson look like a pussy.” But, such youth-y phrases could come off as corny if not for the deft deliveries of the lead actors. Over the course of the play’s 90 minutes, Ashkon Davaran plays Andrew Jackson with a simultaneous share of child-like sensitivity and unadulterated ego. As Jackson’s vice president Martin Van Buren, Michael Barrett Austin renders the man nicknamed “Little Magician” as a nervous pansy with a penchant for Twinkies while Angel Burgess embodies a fierce spirit of loyalty and conviction as Jackson’s wife Rachel. Individually, the actors excel at the type of frenzied self-referential humor that centers the play, but together they, like Van Buren, presumably, imbue a sense of magic.
In one scene, towards the middle of Jackson’s life (when he first ran for president in 1824), director Jon Tracy stages Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren in what is easily the oddest rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” This episode epitomizes “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” It’s an ultimately alluring mix of caricatured burlesque, scathing criticism and off-the-wall melodrama that fits perfectly with what’s been the current cultural trend for U.S. presidents — fixing them as rock stars. See “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” or the merchandise of any Urban Outfitters for evidence. SF Playhouse’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” speaks to this ethos of youthful abandon better than just about any other show. It’s just too bad the audience was too elderly to fully appreciate the action that is Jackson.
Jessica Pena is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]