From Scott McCrea of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner; October 11, 2012
Perhaps one of the more difficult forms of theater for your average audience member to comprehend is the style known as “Theatre of the Absurd.” It was a style that emerged after World War II with playwrights such as Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet. Theater critic and scholar Martin Esslin, who coined the phrase, wrote “The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it.”
It’s not a style of theater common in Fairbanks, though the late Theatre UAF professor Anatoly Antohin would often times delve into the arena in his productions. Those wanting to get a dose of this world can do so with the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theater production of “Campaign: The Spectacle.” But in the case of this play, it’s more like an overdose.
Written by a local playwright who chose for some reason to remain anonymous, “Campaign” is a dark satire that focuses on how our presidential election would be if the whole political process was reduced to a one-night game show, with three candidates competing for the seat in the oval office.
It’s a great concept with enormous potential and most definitely is a timely production. The show features an accomplished director (Tom Robenolt), an exceptionally talented cast with some great newcomers to the Fairbanks theater scene, a vibrant and dynamic set, and one damn good rock and roll band. All of the pieces were there to make this into something truly wonderful — the missing element being, unfortunately, a rock solid script.
“Campaign,” more than anything, seems to suffer from an identity crisis as far as not being entirely sure of what kind of play it wants to be or how it wants us, as audience members, to react or feel. There are moments when the focus is almost there — where you really feel as if you are understanding the message and what the show is conveying. Then, all of a sudden, a harlequin rides by on a tricycle and throws popcorn in your face and you’re back to square one, scratching your head (which is now covered in popcorn) and trying to figure out what exactly is going on.
Having said that, you won’t at any point be bored with the production nor will you find yourself looking at your watch. The play demands your attention from the beginning. Everything is loud and colorful and larger than life with non-stop eye candy. The actors don’t just appear on stage, they consume it, pulling you into their characters and world whether you want to join them or not. John Moffat leads the way as the frenetic master of ceremonies, Cash, who changes his personality just as much as his wardrobe; Levi Rion Ben-Israel as the aforementioned harlequin, who packs the energy of an entire power plant into his performance; Rakeem Edwards as Mr. Washington, the gyrating and smooth-talking incumbent; and Julia Hnilicka as the Palin-esque candidate Ms. Patterson, whose treatment in the show is unnerving at times.
The character that captivated me the most was that of the third candidate, Mr. Pupet (think “puppet”), played by Ian Tully. Tully didn’t have a lot of dialogue to work with, but his stage movements were some of the best I have seen and he displayed physical talents that took in a performance of their own.
The audience is pulled into the show as well, getting a chance to ask candidates questions and even partaking in a game on stage. Interesting approach but ultimately not the most effective. You want your audience to become involved and engaged, but you don’t want them to sit through the show being nervous that they might be forced to join in on the action.
The band, consisting of James Bartlett, Cassidy Phillips, Isaiah Kane and Gavin Hage, were spot on in their musical delivery and took the already high energy of the show from a 10 to an 11. Scenic designer Gary Graves, scenic artist Greg Gustafson and video/TV designer Chris John George team up to create a set that is a spectacle of its own, complete with a bank of 22 televisions showing a variety of footage ranging from news clips to cartoons throughout the show. There’s even a cameraman who follows characters as they go off stage, and the audience gets to see what happens on the screens.
Despite the above criticisms, I do want to applaud FST for being willing to roll the giant dice and take a chance on a local playwright as well as featuring a play that is far outside the norm of your typical local theater. “Campaign: The Spectacle” might not be quite ready for prime time just yet, but as I said before, the potential to do so is certainly there.