Give the people what they want. And what do they want? That depends on when you ask, who you ask, why you ask and where you ask. Mostly, though, they just don’t want what they already have. They want something different — if you tell them that’s what they want.
Populism is that weird political child of pure democracy and inchoate self-interest, wildly diverse and dolled up in the vernacular of “common folk” taking the nation back.
“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which opened Friday in a Minneapolis Musical Theatre production, is a punky and loud slapstick of the first president outside the Beltway — a wild Tennessean who fought, killed and hated, but connected with the masses.
Ah, the cult of demagoguery. Ain’t that America?
In MMT’s staging, Philip C. Matthews gives us a pouting, reckless lout given to temper tantrums and offensive palaver. Alex Timbers’ script is an equal-opportunity offender. John C. Calhoun, one of Jackson’s rivals, we are told, “rapes little children.” The Northeastern establishment liberals are “doily-wearing muffin tops.” Martin Van Buren, Jackson’s vice president, prances about as a simpering effeminate stereotype. Other stuff can’t be reported here.
There is jaundice in Michael Friedman’s anarchic score. “Populism, Yea, Yea!” is a full-throated paean to the outsiders whose grudges turn into political power. “Rock Star” rips up the aristocracy and the Federalist presidents. “Ten Little Indians” is a bitter lament that turns poignantly sad in the context of the frontier assault on native tribes.
The play crosses Jackson with present-day motifs — expressed at MMT in Darren Hensel’s thumping guitar band and a roadhouse set designed to the last piece of rusted corrugated tin.
Steven Meerdink’s production, though, is disjointed and afraid of Jackson’s character. Matthews’ performance doesn’t tempt us into the unholy bargain that voters make with charismatic candidates every four years. We are let off the hook, able to hold Jackson at arm’s length because of the stench of his character. He’s repulsive, whereas there is always something oddly appealing and slightly scary in a populist.
That said, give Meerdink points for his sensitivity to the depiction of American Indians in “Bloody Bloody.” The play in New York was scabrous and has drawn protests for its treatment of Indians. Meerdink was clearly affected. The only character who approaches a degree of dimension and empathy is Christian Unser’s Black Fox, the Indian who routinely finds himself in the impossible position of defending the anger of his people and the rightness of his cause. But life in America isn’t fair.
“You were totally here first,” Jackson allows, wearily at one point. “But we don’t [care] and we never will.”
That’s a stinging indictment of our history and a challenge for our future.