By John Quinn
In an interesting bit of tie-in marketing, the Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company opens “Picking Palin” the same week as America watched the vice-presidential debate of this election cycle. I didn’t watch the Biden/Ryan dust-up. I share the opinion of John Nance Garner, FDR’s first V.P., who famously claimed the vice-presidency is “not worth a bucket of warm” -um – ‘urine.’ Those of us who are passionate about our politics, but don’t fit in the one-dimensional spectrum between “red” and “blue” don’t need superficial debates to appreciate playwright Stephen Padilla’s cautionary theme. The great American Experiment in self-government is endangered by a cynical, partisan culture that values candidates who are electable rather than those who are fit to govern.
“Picking Palin” debuted in August 2010 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. It’s a relatively unpartisan work. It lays out the why and how a popular, first-term governor with no national recognition leaped into the major leagues of political gamesmanship. Governor Palin and Senator McCain are not characters in the play; they are merely forces that drive a quartet of campaign workers tasked with finding their candidate a running mate. So the party faithful, over three days in August 2008, pull Sarah Palin out of a hat like a magician’s bunny.
The four include Neil (Bob Gerics), apparently the head honcho; Jan (Connie Cowper), a reasonable, experienced party operative in the Peggy Noonan mold; Bob (Andrew Papa), obsessed with appeasing the conservative wing of the party; and Paul (Artun Kircali), who wants a GOP that moves forward, rather than looks backward. Senator McCain has inexplicably punted on a choice of running mate, expecting the committee to find an acceptable partner. Poll watching, number-crunching Bob is convinced he alone knows the qualifications for which the Republican voter is looking. McCain’s option, for instance, Connecticut senator and long-time friend Joe Lieberman, is considered too liberal and too Jewish. Other names on the short list receive short shrift – much to the delight, I may add, of the more partisan members of the audience.
Thus in a bid to swing young voters and women, a young, woman candidate was chosen. We know the strategy failed. The incumbent party could not offer “hope and change,” and the swing votes went Democratic. And therein lurks the problem with “Picking Palin.” Regardless of the formidable talents of director Mollie McMahon, this script can’t pass the vetting process.
There’s no suspense when we know the ending. What could be playable tension among the characters – particularly between Paul, the ardent idealist, and Bob, the cold pragmatist – is superficial and stereotyped. The play has a number of cogent, meaningful observations, mainly from Jan, who obviously is the only adult in the room. And what can we make of Neil, the leader who is easily led? While we’re buried in factoids regarding the 2008 election that might enhance a policy wonk’s anecdote list, it’s lean material for compelling drama.
Ultimately, though, Padilla’s message is sound even if the delivery is off. If you’ve read “The Federalist” (and, after all, who HASN’T?), you know that Alexander Hamilton anticipated and welcomed the rise of “factions” within the nation’s politics. Ironic, then, that the High Federalist died in a duel with the Democratic-Republican Party’s Vice-President, Aaron Burr. Vice-Presidential politics haven’t been quite that bloody lately, but “factionalism” is letting the major parties, figuratively, get away with murder. It gives an unholy element, who believes winning is everything, license to manipulate voters towards emotional, rather than rational, decisions. Until the electorate stands up and says, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” expect politics as usual. If not us, who? If not now, when?
Magenta Giraffe Theatre at The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 Lafayette, #113, Detroit. Oct. 12 – Nov. 3. 110 minutes. $15-18. 313-408-7269. http://www.MagentaGiraffe.org