With two weeks still to go in a presidential campaign that seems to have lasted for eons, you may be in the mood to thumb your nose at the entire political process, or possibly even to express your feelings by means of a different digit.
If so, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,’’ now at SpeakEasy Stage Company under the direction of Paul Melone, could offer the kind of catharsis you’re looking for.
Rough, rude, fast, loud, and irreverent, this musical satire is to standard presidential biography as a punch in the nose is to afternoon tea. Librettist Alex Timbers and composer Michael Friedman don’t just demystify Old Hickory; they wittily reimagine and reinterpret our seventh president as a pouty, hot-headed, and not especially bright fellow, albeit one with the kind of rock-star charisma that can command a devoted following. Even in the early 19th century, they suggest, political success depended on crafting an image and relentlessly selling it.
As portrayed with all-out gusto by Gus Curry, the title character is driven by testosterone and an adolescent I’ll-show-’em ambition, not any grand, unifying vision. And that’s just fine with a citizenry that swoons at Andrew’s brand of hard-edged populism and is untroubled by his brutal treatment of Native Americans as he seeks to expand US territory while furthering his own career. With his combination of insecurity and ruthlessness, Curry’s Andrew is an all-too-accurate reflection of the nation he seeks to lead.
Eric Levenson’s brooding, superbly realized set consists of a series of towering, web-like wire grids on which hang artifacts of the frontier — maps, rifles, bows, snowshoes, wagon wheels — along with a host of mirrors that suggest the essential narcissism of the man whose story we are watching.
Apart from a couple of halting transitions between scenes at the opening performance, the SpeakEasy production barrels entertainingly along, flattening myths as it goes. Melone’s skilled cast delivers brief and unflattering portraits of John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, Martin Van Buren, John Calhoun, and Henry Clay. Via the character of the Storyteller, the show directly spoofs the conventions of traditional approaches to teaching history. Played with an amusingly breathless fervor by Mary Callanan, seated in a wheelchair and shod in pink Crocs, the Storyteller handles the narrative duties, at least until she herself is drawn into the action.
Alessandra Vaganek exudes warmth as Rachel, Jackson’s wife. His moments with her are when Curry’s Andrew is at his most sympathetic. Yet we see another side to him in “Ten Little Indians,’’ a song wrapped around scenes of Jackson cold-bloodedly negotiating one-sided treaties with Native American leaders.
A four-piece band, including music director Nicholas James Connell at the piano, helps sustain the momentum and anarchic spirit of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’’ Its cleverness deliberately leans toward the puerile, as suggested by song titles like “I’m Not That Guy,’’ in which Andrew laments “Life sucks. My life sucks in particular.’’ The script and the score are peppered with such wisecracking anachronisms: references to Susan Sontag in the song “Illness as Metaphor,’’ to the French social theorist Michel Foucault in the tune “The Corrupt Bargain’’ (which depicts the controversial tactics by which Jackson was denied the presidency in 1824), to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America’’ campaign commercials in 1984. Modern slang crops up frequently, as when one character, dressed as a cheerleader, opines that “Direct democracy directly applied is, like, totes lame.’’
From the opening number, “Populism, Yea, Yea!’’, Andrew’s ascent to political power is framed as a reaction by the West against the governing elites of the East, a cultural tension that is still very much with us today. A cowboy sings: “And we’re gonna take this country back/For people like us/Who don’t just think about things/People who make things happen.’’ Another cowboy chimes in: “Sometimes with guns,’’ and another adds: “Sometimes with speeches too.’’
Andrew proves entirely willing to use both forms of explosive force and doesn’t seem to see much difference between them. When he suggests, during the middle of an otherwise funny temper tantrum, that “I represent the national character of this country,’’ your laughter curdles with an uneasy feeling that he might be right.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.