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The 14th version of 1812 Productions’ This Is the Week That Is finds the popular news-satire show (akin to television’s The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live) fresh and in fine form. More than ever, though, director-writer-performer Jennifer Childs’s ensemble comes out fighting.
In the past, the troupe aimed for middle-ground mockery without openly supporting sides, parties, or candidates. Sometimes this was a matter of interpretation; their arts-friendly, left-leaning audience clearly enjoys the show every year, so they’ve probably not felt insulted or demeaned.
However, the creators of this year’s TITWTI (the performers, plus head news writer Don Montrey, who update the show daily) come out swinging at our current president, and I don’t mind at all. This stance risks alienating some, but a balanced show about today’s politics would be a two-headed monster, each trying to devour the other.
Take it from the top
One of the many traditions that tickle me every year is 1812’s clever curtain speech, turning the obligatory restrooms, cellphones, and donations announcement into something special. This year, Childs emerges first but merely chats. When stage manager Tom Shotkin, on microphone from the booth, directs her to make the curtain speech, she objects because she doesn’t want to start the show and deal with current issues.
When Shotkin insists, the curtain speech becomes a musical number, introducing performer and music director Rob Tucker, Sean Close, Dave Jadico, Justin Jain, and Tanaquil Marquez. A playful jab at Trump’s tweeting (“While it’s presidential, it’s not polite”) leads to sharper critique, e.g., “While the tax cuts helped big business, they don’t do shit for us.” We also hear one of the show’s many great one-liners: “When the going gets tough, the tough get funny.”
That they do. Another development is a newfound comfort with using strong language. But when discussing Trump, can swearing be avoided?
Act I triumphs with Broadway-musical parodies, from Fiddler on the Roof (with “Collusion” replacing “Tradition”) and Cats (“Memory” becomes “Stormy,” as in Daniels), among others. Jillian Keys’s clever costumes add color and veracity to the parodies, as do Jorge Cousineau’s videos on the three screens of Lance Kniskern’s handsomely worn, faded-looking red, white, and blue set.
Another TITWTI staple, making an audience member a candidate, comes off smoothly — though, in politics as in theater, your results may vary depending on that evening's audience.
The dark side
As always, TITWTI’s second act mimics a TV news show. It lacked oomph on opening night, perhaps because TV news parodies are ubiquitous and some jokes flog tired tropes (enough about Warren’s Native American DNA already), or the puzzling lack of Cousineau’s visuals.
Topics that could use visual punch, such as Congress’s new diversity, receive none.
Much of Act II feels dark and static, but creative and literal bright spots emerge, lit by Paul Moffitt. Jain and Marquez spoof stereotypical young people in their “Millennial Couch” segment and Tucker soars as Oprah in Dreamgirls’ big number, rewritten as “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Running.”
The news segment also revives two beloved characters: Jadico’s hapless lobby reporter, and Childs’s South Philly philosopher Patsy, who movingly endorses tolerance and inclusivity in her lovably gruff style.
The full-cast rock finale, always a song with a message, is the Beatles’s “We Can Work It Out,” but in Stevie Wonder’s more passionate, upbeat version. It’s an optimistic cap to a This Is the Week That Is that, while hilarious, boldly expresses pessimism and frustration.
What, When, Where
This Is the Week That Is. By the ensemble and head writer Don Montrey, Jennifer Childs and Dan O'Neil directed. 1812 Productions. Through January 5, 2019, at the Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. (215) 592-9560 or 1812productions.org.
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