The Duquesne Red Masquers could not have asked for better timing for their production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. A show about a populist President who rides to power by claiming to represent the will of “The People,” only to find himself in over his head? There’s really no way that could get any more on-the-nose, right? Well… on its opening day, Donald Trump visited Jackson’s grave. And then talked about how he disagreed with a court ruling about people he didn’t want in the country. Although written prior to 2008, the themes of populism and racism explored in the show sometimes feel eerily relevant to the current moment. The Red Masquers actually decided to stage this play before the election, but its result obviously influenced director Jill Jeffrey’s choices in developing the production.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a musical satire written by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, provides a not-quite-sympathetic chronicle of the life of the seventh President from his origins in rural Tennessee to his clashes with Congress and the courts in Washington. Depicting Jackson as a swaggering rock star, the show embraces the DIY aesthetic and breakneck pace of a punk show. Jackson himself is one of the only constants on stage, portrayed by sophomore Michael Tarasovich. The rest of the cast cycle through multiple characters, donning simple additions to their costumes to identify each one. The effect can be jarring at first – especially as the plot rockets through Jackson’s early life without a lot of recurring characters. But with Jackson’s entry into politics, the show finds a steadier pace and it becomes easy to identify actors with characters.
For most of its runtime, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson refuses to rest for more than a few seconds. Although the minimalist set remains mostly static, the cast successfully draws attention to one area while the others are being re-furnished to accommodate new scenes. Cast members move into the audience when Jackson is addressing the people, or speak from behind the fence that divides the stage in half (see, I told you it was topical) when breaking the fourth wall is called for. It is only late in the production, when the consequences of the President’s increasingly erratic behavior begin to catch up with him, that the action slows down to dwell on his legacy with the song “Second Nature.” Jeffrey accentuates this moment with images of the modern America Jackson helped to create and the people he hurt along the way.
The Red Masquers are a student theater group at Duquesne University, but Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an alumni show, featuring returning members alongside current students. Although the cast members’ experience levels vary widely, they work well together. “The Corrupt Bargain,” a number featuring the plotting of the Out-Of-Touch Coastal Elite, demonstrates this range: John Beckas, who plays soon-to-be-former President James Monroe, is a first time actor, while Justin Sines – a hilarious John Quincy Adams – is a veteran of multiple local theater companies and is the Technical Director for the very Genesius theater in which this show was performed.
In addition to leading man Tarasovich, who captures the posturing hotheadedness that is Jackson’s defining characteristic here, the show features notable performances from Lauren Gardonis and Katheryn Hess. While individual singers can sometimes get lost in some of the larger ensemble pieces, these two stand out shine in songs that focus on their voices – Gardonis in the dark “Ten Little Indians” and Hess as Jackson’s wife Rachel in “The Great Compromise.”
This is a lively and relevant show that seems to be as much fun for the cast as the audience. But it should come with a bit of a content warning. Remember, it is a punk show. First of all, there’s a few f-bombs. Some dick jokes. A very-nearly-too-old reference to the Tea Party movement that takes a while to register if you weren’t active on Daily Kos in the early years of the Obama administration. (I guess that’s a dated reference, too? My bad.) But the controversy that has followed this show through multiple productions is its treatment of Native Americans. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not subtle in its portrayal of its title character as the villain – the phrase “American Hitler” is actually used at one point – but any piece that deals with genocide in a broad satirical tone has to be careful. Especially when relying on simple visual cues to identify characters. Masquers alum Jeff Johnston, who plays Black Fox, the most prominent Native American character, made it clear in a post-performance talkback that the company was very aware of this and did their best to avoid stereotypes. As long as you’re comfortable with all that, the Red Masquers’ production is an enjoyable way to spend an evening.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through March 19 at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theater, with shows at 8:00 and Midnight on Friday and Saturday, and a 2 PM matinee on Sunday. Visitors unfamiliar with the Duquesne Campus would also be well-advised to make sure you know where the Genesius Theater actually is. Hint: it’s not at 600 Forbes. I totally knew that.
Special thanks to the Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of Dale Hess and Morgan Paterniti.