Political satire goes down better with loud music and vulgar lyrics. It also helps to have the bitter political truths delivered by manic clowns in funny costumes, taking spills on a 19th century vaudeville stage. You can’t miss the outrage fueling “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: The Concert Version,” the made-in-madness collaborative effort of writer-director Alex Timbers and composer-lyricist Michael Friedman. But served up with absurdist humor, the show’s scathing views of the populist “frontier president” (and the worshipful rabble who elected him) leap historical boundaries, attaching themselves to many an American idol — and a multitude of idiotic electorates.
The great American frontier is stripped of all its romance in Donyale Werle’s set — a witty sendup of Wild West virility (stuffed bears, mounted moose), cultural pretensions (lopsided chandeliers, tatty velvet draperies) and sentimentality (framed pictures of winsome kittens). Lest we miss the point, lighting designer Justin Townsend drenches this 19th century attic in livid shades of red and dangles neon tubing overhead.
What this wilderness frontier needs is a hero to focus its savage impulses, and as the onstage band strikes up a rousing chorus of “Populism, Yea, Yea,” it gets the hero it deserves. Cue the wonderfully watchable Benjamin Walker (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses”), young and tall and manly and hilariously full of himself as Andrew Jackson, the future seventh president of these United States.
“I’m wearing some tight, tight jeans,” he declares in the cheeky manner of our charismatic national idols, from presidents to rock stars. “And tonight we’re delving into some serious, serious shit.”
From log-cabin boyhood in the rustic Tennessee hills to the hallowed halls of the White House, Old Hickory doesn’t change a bit — which is the way heroes are supposed to behave in this culture. You grow, you die — although it’s entirely OK if you have some amusing quirks, like entering into a bigamous marriage. But even at the end of his life, the fighting frontiersman stuck to his principles: Grab all the land, drive out the British and the Spanish, and get rid of the Indians.
The character humor has to do with the fact that, man and boy, Jackson behaves with the ruthless power hunger of a willful, self-centered child. “Life sucks,” goes one memorable lyric. “My life sucks in particular.” At some point, it dawns on this baby boy that, once you get to be president, or some other kind of celebrity, everybody wants you to be their father. “Why don’t you just shoot me in the head,” he demands, in a pointed lyric from a song called “Rock Star.”
The representational humor has more to do with the creatives’ contemporary take on historical fact, depicted here in broad outline, but with hilarious disregard for nuance. One keen dramatization of Jackson’s complex relationship with the ruling political aristocracy summarily reduces Martin Van Buren (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), John Quincy Adams (Jeff Hiller), John Calhoun (Darren Goldstein), Henry Clay (Bryce Pinkham) and James Monroe (Ben Steinfeld) to the sum of their idiosyncratic parts. All five thesps are appropriately — well, idiosyncratic.
And now for a word from the evening’s official Storyteller. As played with the utmost comic cruelty by Colleen Werthmann, she’s a femme version of Simon Schama, cheerfully delivering (from a wheelchair) a scrupulously researched, but not too intellectually taxing history special for PBS.
Terrible things happen to the Storyteller, which is all to the good, since the smart subtext of the show has to do with narrative itself — the process by which we perpetuate the legends we create. So while Jackson’s life and career are rendered faithfully enough in broad outline, the information is refracted through multiple information sources, from the Storyteller lady and the tall-tale tellers in the no-name saloon to the CNN voices (of Lisa Joyce and others) breathlessly pumping up election night frenzy, and those screamers who conduct the vote count on “American Idol.” The creatives are nothing if not democratic in their contempt for how we make, market and destroy our heroes.
And in the end, it’s the Storyteller who sticks the knife in the Jackson legend by reminding the president that, even today, scholars can’t decide whether he was a great warrior and a true populist leader or a ruthless, land-grabbing imperialist and “a genocidal murderer” — the “American Hitler” who displaced indigenous Indian tribes and wiped out the entire Cherokee Nation.
The academic jury may still be out on that question, but down at the Public, this hot little show is putting on one hell of a wake for a fallen hero.