The Mother of All Enemies
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 31, 2006
In his new solo show The Mother of All Enemies, Paul Zaloom takes on Homeland Security, "Don't Ask/Don't Tell," Al Qaeda, the "Ex-Gay" movement, intolerant Conservatives, the wars of the Middle East, the United States Marine Corps, the deterioration of privacy and compassion—in short, more or less everything that characterizes our increasingly distressing and insecure way of life here in the USA in 2006: all that, plus the impossibility of trying to survive as an artist in a world that seems less and less to value art. (That final point is already proven when we walk in the door—not of a well-funded and well-fed mainstream venue, but of scrappy Collective: Unconscious in Tribeca. Zaloom, one of the most important figures of alternative theatre of the past three decades (and a TV star, in Beakman's World), is touring in tiny venues like this one? Something is broken.)
Zaloom launches his attack on the System from two fronts. Most of The Mother of All Enemies takes the form of a shadow puppet play, in which Zaloom works all the controls and does all the voices and sound effects. The star of this show is Karagoz, a character from traditional Middle Eastern puppet theatre whom Zaloom describes as a knavish, clownish hero in the style of Punch or Pulcinella. His Karagoz, a chunky bearded felow in a fez, has simple goals: to live a peaceful life with his boyfriend Harry, raise some kids, and make a living as an artist. But everywhere he goes, his desires are foiled. Police (literally pigs in cop cars) harrass Karagoz and Harry when it looks like they're making a public display of affection. Eventually, Karagoz gets arrested for being so careless, and winds up in prison, where he meets a genie who grants him "seven or nine" wishes.
Karagoz uses these wishes to turn himself into a variety of forms of transportation (airplane, boat, etc.) which carry him around the world. He finds himself first in Israel, where his swarthy Arab looks make him pretty unpopular; and then in Pakistan, in an Al Qaeda training camp (depicted here hilariously as a kids' summer camp, with a counselor promising a day trip to New York, where the activities will be attending the musical Spamalot, getting knishes at Yonah Shimmel's, and blowing up a famous landmark). Karagoz's Rocky-and-Bullwinkle-like adventures eventually take him to the U.S., where he encounters a disco-queen Statue of Liberty, lands in jail, journeys to an "Ex-Gay" dude ranch, and (having turned himself into a woman) almost becomes the paramour of one of the most virulent "Ex-Gays." It's coarse, goofy, broad satire, its anger diffused by the fanciful, silly ambience. Lots of it scores a bulls eye.
Around the puppet show, Zaloom delivers comic monologues, all based on true experiences and illustrating how cockeyed our society's values have become. There's a Tonight Show-style riff on bumper stickers for secular humanists that's pretty funny; and there's a bit about Zaloom's email correspondence with a USMC recruiter that is, by turns, hilarious and chilling.
The show's blissful humor is subverted at almost every point by its urgency: Zaloom is too genuinely concerned about the subjects he's talking about to surrender them completely to pure comedy (and with good reason). So The Mother of All Enemies is as likely to make you angry as to make you laugh, which is certainly its whole reason for being. Authentically political satire is hard to come by these days, and as Zaloom's own career illustrates, it's not something our culture is currently rewarding appropriately. See what you've been missing and get yourself fired up: The Mother of All Enemies is the real thing, and it's so necessary right now.