The Axis of Evil Vaudeville Revue--II
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
January 14, 2005
Martin Bard, the writer and director (and occasional uncredited performer) of the Axis of Evil Vaudeville Revue—II, clearly has strong opinions about the current state of America—the war on Iraq, the Republican administration, job loss in urban areas—and I would tend to agree with many of his opinions. But in constructing the show, Bard seems to have let his desire to make his point trump his desire to make compelling theatre.
The show’s definition of “vaudeville” is somewhat unusual: although it does include the expected musical numbers and some comic scenes, more than half of the running time is taken up with extremely serious and often quite long scenes—almost a set of short plays sandwiched in among the lighter material Act 1 is titled “Our Iraqi Adventure,” so the scenes feature soldiers in battle analyzing their situation, an Iraqi mother pleading with the troops to help her get medical attention for her wounded son, and the like; in Act 2, “An American Odyssey,” the scenes involve such topics as federal agents threatening a Muslim graduate student, or a young white man learning about the life of an older African American woman and the problems of the ghetto.
These serious scenes unquestionably raise important topics and provide food for thought. But the writing throughout is so heavy-handed and lacking in complexity in terms of both character and viewpoint that the effectiveness of the scenes’ political commentary is blunted. Granted, the vaudeville form tends to trade in caricature rather than character, but in the lengthier scenes, caricature isn’t sufficient to tell a compelling story. And in the serious scenes in particular, without the leavening of satire that can make a caricature enjoyable, I found some of the characters trite and almost offensively stereotypical—the wailing, groveling Iraqi mother who has no identity or purpose other than to care for her children; the wise, church-going African American woman who barely leaves her rent-controlled apartment; the ham-handed federal agents who terrorize a young Muslim man.
Songs and comic scenes do break up the dark mood, but the songs, too, feel like they’re desperately trying to cram in the maximum amount of commentary per square inch. Even in the comic numbers, the lyrics are basically long lists of complaints with barely a rhyme or a bit of wordplay to be found. The funniest moments are between scenes, when a disheveled, shady low-price travel planner emerges to shill budget tours of the Middle East.
The ensemble does its best with the material; they are spirited, enthusiastic, and committed throughout.
The production design has an intentionally homespun, cobbled-together feel about it, which is at times effective and at times a little surreal. Many of the performers have single, basic costumes that they wear throughout, with the addition or subtraction of different accessories, which creates occasionally bizarre juxtapositions, like the homebound African American woman in sparkling fishnets, or the Muslim graduate student who resembles nothing so much as a mime, with red suspenders, gloves, and a bowler hat.
I applaud Martin Bard’s desire to use his art to proclaim his convictions and to incite the world to action—as the finale of the show reminds us, “the future of our democracy is in our hands.” But I do wish that he’d found a way to make his point with a little more originality and artistry.