by Richard Dodds
The analogies to the politics of today are so thick and tangled that trying to line up the events in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson with contemporary counterparts could leave you dazed and confused, and metaphorically, just a little bit bloody. While many Americans may embrace such beliefs as Manifest Destiny and, more recently, American Exceptionalism, the licenses they provide require hands getting dirtied, but preferably not our own, and here is a place for the government to step in – with as much plausible deniability as possible.
As a military leader and then as president, Andrew Jackson saw his dirtied hands as badges of honor. If genocide was what was needed to ensure Indian-free expansion of the nation, he owned it, while some citizens might murmur in protest and privately heave sighs of relief. "He puts the 'man' in Manifest Destiny," says one of his admirers in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as the rock musical body slams the 19th century into the 21st using our seventh president as ballast.
Andrew Jackson received positive reviews but had trouble finding an audience during a 2010 Broadway run. But there is no doubting its immediate, almost visceral relevance as the upcoming election elicits reflection and bombast, and for a theater that is itself manifesting a promising destiny, the musical is a perfect choice for time and place.
SF Playhouse debuted in 2003 in a small theater on Sutter Street before moving a few years later to an even smaller space on Sutter Street. But while the trajectory of venues may have been downward, the quality of productions under founding directors Bill English and Susi Damilano drew a growing and supportive audience. Now, with its name officially de-abbreviated to San Francisco Playhouse, the company has taken over what began as an Elks Lodge ballroom and has more recently been known as Theatre on the Square and the Post Street Theatre. With the spirit of Don Quixote tilting at windmills, the Playhouse undertook converting the 729-seat theater into a 200-seat auditorium with a thrusting stage while simultaneously mounting a musical of swashbuckling intensity and few of the preset parameters of more traditional material. Don Quixote lost his battle, but for San Francisco Playhouse and the theater-going community, it's a win-win situation.
The musical itself is not easily described, mixing a kind of thrash-rock score by Michael Friedman and a book by Alex Timbers that suggests a woozy, irreverent historical pageant put on by a cast that arrived at the theater via skateboard. It befits a president who was something of a rock star, a gun-toting populist with behavioral issues. "I'm wearing some tight, tight jeans, and we're delving into some serious shit," the musical's Andrew Jackson says by way of introduction in Ashkon Davaran's strutting, moody performance with a kind of Mark Ruffalo chill.
A more-or-less chronological history tracks Jackson's life from Tennessee childhood through his military and political exploits and a marriage that probably violated bigamy laws and involved mutual bloodletting for medical and perhaps recreational purposes. Amongst the cast wearing bits and pieces of historical finery over their own glad rags (costumes by Abra Berman and Tatjana Genser), there is one voice connected to The World as We Know It. A delightful Ann Hopkins, aboard a motorized wheelchair and in sensible clothing befitting a docent, buzzes in and out of the action to provide a narration that the other characters don't always appreciate.
Director Jon Tracy's production may need a few more performances to mine all its possibilities, but voltage was high on opening night, the tricky rendering of carefully staged chaos was abundantly realized, and an ensemble cast that often doubles as musicians solidly grasped the spirit behind the specifics of their multiple characters. Among the more memorable creations are Safiya Fredericks as Black Fox, Jackson's oft-betrayed emissary to the westward heave-ho'd Native Americans; Angel Burgess as the mostly woebegone Mrs. Andrew Jackson; and Michael Barrett Austin, William Elsman, Lucas Hatton, and Olive Mitra primarily as various politicos of the era.
Jonathan Fadner leads the morphing band from a perch atop set designer Nina Bell's Erector-set outline of the Capitol dome. Andrew Jackson inarguably opened that Capitol to a far wider breadth of citizenry than ever before, which is a good thing even though its decisions aren't always based with the care any democracy needs. "He's the candidate I'd most want to have a beer with," says one of Jackson's supporters before an election. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a rocking, frenetic, and mournful ode to the drinking buddies at the helm and those who put them there.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson will run at the San Francisco Playhouse through Nov. 24. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 677-9596 or go to www.sfplayhouse.org.