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Karen Finley and Neal Medlyn in George & Martha
(Photo © Tom Carpenter)
Right-wingers don't seem to follow avant-garde theater like they used to. There once was a time when enterprising performers knew that if they creatively employed yams or crosses, a cabal of culture warriors -- Buchanan, Helms, Robertson, and company -- would get wind of their exploits and declare jihad from afar. It was a surefire method of gaining publicity and stoking progressive action. Now, the right has all but succeeded in de-toothing the NEA and marginalizing envelope-pushing artists; it's gotten to the point where a team of provocateurs can trot around a stage completely in the buff, skewering a sitting President, without prompting national hand-wringing over our decaying moral values.

The lack of vitriol directed toward George & Martha is really a reflection on the state of political theater in our country. The show itself proves that Karen Finley and Neil Medlin have well-deserved reputations as thoughtful and challenging performers, as well as masters of obscenity. It begins with the President (Neal Medlyn) and Martha Stewart (Karen Finley) walking into a seedy motel, stark naked except for strategic body paint: The now-incarcerated Stewart is smeared in horizontal black and white pinstripes, while Bush has glam body paint and a patriotic member with a red shaft and blue balls. Without spoiling too many of the blows (ahem) that the show delivers, let it be said that this sort of event may prompt the audience to ask questions such as, "Was that tampon string supposed to be there?" (In this Karen Finley show, the string in question seemed to be there because the play opened at a certain time of the month; in one of the productions that got Finley on the NEA hit list, a tampon served a more meaningful purpose.)

All of this Bush-bashing can seem like preaching to the choir, but the performers are too engaging to rest on obvious images; they inhabit and subvert their characters' archetypes. Medlyn's cowboy-like Bush calls himself stupid but he knows enough to make a Wildean quip about how guilt and morality only pertain to members of the lower class. Likewise, Finley's Stewart is a cold-hearted perfectionist but also a vulnerable woman who genuinely wants to give homemakers dignity and a voice. The show's full nudity can be seen as an attempt to humanize the characters even if it does distance and distract us for the first few minutes.

Albee fans will notice many plot devices and themes from his classic play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both works follow bickering couples named George and Martha, and both Marthas start things off by entering a room and saying "What a dump!" Then there's the question of the baby; the Albee couple had an imaginary child, but whether or not this George Bush and this Martha Stewart ever had a child depends on when you think life begins. That Martha has has an abortion is more than a potshot at Republican hypocrisy; the revelation marks a turning point in the show when most of the comedy ends and some somber drama begins. The dialogue that follows this moment turns poetic and even touching at times.

The show's pair of performers push absurdist naturalism into the realm of performance art. George & Martha is a meditation on illusion versus reality at a time when political realities often seem absurd.

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