A daring mashup by two experimental companies (Philadelphia’s New Paradise Laboratories and New York’s the Riot Group) and two eras (1865 and 2015), “Freedom Club” indicts fanatical radicalism in America. Aptly self-described as “a hallucination on national themes,” the satire vividly skewers self-aggrandizing extremists from John Wilkes Booth to a feminist collective that spawns another presidential assassin.
In part one, a highly stylized 19th century gives us a deeply depressed Lincoln (Drew Friedman whose voice is eerily miked) in top hat, intoning, “I wish I was dead.” Tiny Mrs. Lincoln (Stephanie Viola) sits upon his lap and channels the spirit world (everybody’s nuts). In one of many strikingly anachronistic (and very funny) moments, a Washington power broker, speaking about the defeated South, says, “We’re going to reconstruct the fuck out of that place.”
The dazzling center of this Civil War world is John Wilkes Booth (the superb, scary and sexy Jeb Kreager) decked out in a cream suit with glittering vest. He is surrounded by women (“extremely sophisticated pussycats lick me all over”) and wants to “be Brutus, not play him onstage.” Mary McCool and McKenna Kerrigan’s big scene as actors in the comedy the Lincolns are watching onstage is hilarious. With wickedly wily faces, they make even their hoop skirts seem sly. Theater becomes the embedded metaphor “America, you need an actor to save you.”
Part two of “Freedom Club” is less interesting because the characters are so familiar and irksome: preachy, self-important babblers whose political positions are illogical and whose pro-abortion cult, led by a pregnant woman, is perhaps infiltrated by both the CIA and the FBI. Women are the new slaves who must be liberated, and Jeremiah (Kreager again) is disgusted with this pseudo family filled with sexual manipulation and alpha females vying for power: “I am the slave of slaves,” he declares, and off he goes to murder the president — who is, of course, a woman. (This, we’re told, is three years after the Obama assassination.) Political extremes are virtually indistinguishable, and right and left are both dangerous and both boring. Linguistically, the contemporary world is diminished (just as their pink-hued camouflage lacks any of the theatrical charm of the Civil War’s costumes). The second half of “Freedom Club” goes on way too long, making its obvious point again and again.
Rosemarie E. McKelvey’s costumes throughout are both clever and handsome, while Matt Saunders’ minimal set design — an ornate wooden chair set on a platform — combined with Maria Shaplin’s self-consciously dramatic lighting, make the show a visual pleasure.