“Obama Spy Drama” Theater Review
[Please note: Read the following at your own peril as it may contain some plot spoilers -- and belly laughs!]
As the Sochi Olympics continued in Russia, Los Angeles theatergoers received an unprecedented Presidents Day present: a world premiere parodying the presidents -- Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin -- and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Before the curtain rises for “Obama Spy Drama” at Hollywood’s Acme Comedy Theater recorded music from various Cold War era espionage movies and TV shows -- including “Goldfinger”, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”, “Mission Impossible”, “Secret Agent Man” and the James Bond theme -- sets the mood. Then the president (Matthew Harris) enters an Oval Office set, signs papers at his desk and launches into an original song satirizing Obama as über-snooper “Big Bro’ O” who is watching you, likening the commander-in-chief to Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984”, with clever lyrics such as:
“I’m prying and peeking,
To block Wiki-Leaking,
I’m legal maneuvering,
J. Edgar Hoovering…
I’m sifting and panning,
To find Bradley Manning,
I’m searching for rodents,
Like that rat Edward Snowden.”
If Manning is the soldier who leaked proof of U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, the online operation that publishes classified information from anonymous sources, Snowden is Big Bro’ O’s bête noir. In “Obama Spy Drama” Big Bro’ O hatches “Operation Snow Job” to retrieve Edward Snowden (Daniel Amerman) and the secrets he’s absconded with from the National Security Agency. To do so the prez and CIA conspire to dispatch Dania Suarez (Beth Triffon), a stereotypical Hispanic “hot tamale”, to Moscow to lure Snowden away from his political asylum in Russia -- with love. Suarez’s sensual secret weapon is a CIA invention worthy of Q in the Bond flicks: a chemical spray that puts the moan into pheromone, ensuring the bearer’s irresistibility once it’s sniffed.
During a White House demonstration Big Bro’ O accidentally smells Suarez’s sexy scent and they proceed to dance a bawdy “Pheromone Tango” -- much to a diva-like Michelle Obama’s (the voluptuous Arielle Widemon Siler) annoyance. In Act II, the First Lady is wooed and wowed by Obama lookalike Black Russian, an amorous KGB agent of African ancestry played by Max Lawrence, who beds her. The ecstatic Michelle sings Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s Oscar-nominated “Nobody Does It Better”, which Carly Simon memorably sung for the 1977 Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me.”
With these scenes of marital infidelity, “Obama Spy Drama” goes beyond criticizing the chief executive’s hyper-surveillance policies that even reveal German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “Wienershcnitzel recipe.” Indeed, the irreverent comedy dares to poke fun at the until-now taboo subject of the Obamas’ highly polished image as an idealized married couple.
But America’s First Family is not alone in being given the travesty treatment by lyricist/ playwright Nicholas Zill. The equal opportunity ironist wields and aims his quill like a harpoon as he lampoons the musical’s Muscovite characters, too. When Snowden appears, he croons a take-off on a Beatles’ ditty renamed here as “Do You Want To Know Some Secrets?” which contains the caustic lyrics: “Let me download a file, I obtained through pure guile.” (The singers are accompanied by a plus-one prerecorded tape with music performed by the four member Rock ‘N’ Ridicule Band.) While the Left views Snowden as a heroic truth teller and watchdog of personal liberty and privacy rights, some on the right consider him to be a high tech turncoat. In turn-around-fair-play Snowden is not unscathed in “Obama Spy Drama”, which portrays the leaker as revealing top secret information to the Russians. (Offstage Snowden provided classified information he took from the NSA to Glenn Greenwald and other journalists, and it has not been proven that he gave secret info directly to any foreign government.)
There’s no disputing the farce’s Vladimir Putin (Christopher Robert Smith) is also in for a shooting. Upon entering, Zill spoofs another “Lenin” and McCartney classic retitled “Back To USSR”, wherein Pres. Putin fantasizes about returning Russia to its Stalin-era superpower status. True to form the buff Smith (who performs double duty, as he also portrays a buffoonish Vice Pres. Joe Biden) appears onstage shirtless, mocking Putin’s macho image. However, Zill takes lethal aim at Russia’s anti-gay stance, ridiculing its homophobia.
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Once rootin’ tootin’ Putin gets a whiff of the pheromone mist’s aroma on Snowden, the Ruskie strongman turns into borscht, falling head over heels in love with the leaker. The ex-KGB agent romances Snowden at his dacha, where Putin teaches the American exile how to dance like a Cossack. As the spellbound homophobe tries to become Vlad the Impaler, slapstick hilarity ensues amidst the utter, uh, gaiety. To complicate matters, Snowden is in turn enamored with Dania and seeks an exit visa to travel to Columbia with the pheromone-drenched South of the Border bombshell.
Although the real life Barack Obama has declined to attend the Sochi Olympics, the play’s president embarks on a clandestine “Mission to Moscow” (a reference to the 1943 movie that soon became a cause célèbre during the ensuing Cold War hysteria, wherein anti-communist zealots hunted Reds-under-the-beds, from Hollywood to the State Department). At Russia Big Bro’ O engages in an athletic competition with the far brawnier Putin: an arm wrestling contest that will decide the fate of Snowden. The refugee from Uncle Sam faces the punishment of being appointed America’s computer czar, tasked with the impossible job of cleaning up the Obamacare website.
The musical is presented by City in a Swamp Productions, and its grand finale is a parody of the Cream’s classic rock number “I’m So Glad”, as Big Bro’ O sings “I’m So Good, I’m Bad.” Perhaps, as Harris’ president sings “I’m So Bad”, in addition to the national security state Obama presides over, Zill has in mind the president’s covert actions, such as the liquidation of Osama Bin Laden and his controversial drone warfare policy.
Along with his collaborators Karen Zill and Derek Jeremiah Reid, Zill has co-created a political satire reminiscent of the Boris and Natasha segments in the 1960s “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” animated series and subsequent cinematic adaptations. The play’s Putin puts one in mind of Boris and Natasha’s ruthless commander, scarfaced Fearless Leader, dictator of Pottsylvania. Speaking with faux Eastern European accents, Boris Badenov’s name is a pun on Boris Godunov, the Russian Czar who inspired works by Pushkin and Prokofiev, while Natasha Fatale was a play on “femme fatale.” In “Obama Spy Drama” actress Natascha Corrigan portrays a KGB spy called Natasha Ouspenskaya, who may have been named after the cartoonish Natasha and Maria Ouspenskaya, of the fabled Moscow Art Theatre. (This acolyte of acting guru Konstantin Stanislavski went on to teach at the American Laboratory Theatre, performing on Broadway and in Hollywood movies, notably as the Gypsy fortuneteller in 1941’s “The Wolf Man.”)
In the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, “Obama Spy Drama” has some of the funniest politics since W.C. Fields’ Klopstokia in 1932’s “Million Dollar Legs” (which also has an Olympics subplot and the president is chosen via arm wrestling --see here) and the Marx Brothers’ Freedonia in 1933’s “Duck Soup”, with Groucho as Pres. Rufus T. Firefly (see here). The play also has some of the sharpest current events lyrics since Tom Lehrer sang zingers in the 1960s. Zill, a Godzilla of send-ups who divides his time between L.A. and Washington, is a psychologist and part of the D.C.-based City in a Swamp Productions, which presents political cabaret and the like in the nation’s capital, including parts of the first previous Obama musical comedies he co-wrote.
Although played mostly for laughs, “Obama Spy Drama” hurls more political barbs than Zill and Reid’s 2011 “Oh, Momma! & Obama”, which revolved more around mother-in-law jokes than affairs of state. In their 2012 “How Obama Got His Groove Back” the eponymous prez (portrayed by Reid) wanted to become a soul singer, while Mitt Romney studied standup comedy. If the second installment of this presidential trilogy was, as the L.A. Times reviewed it, “a cheerful satire,” the jokes in “Obama Spy Drama” are more likely to stick in the throats of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. This may be due to growing dissatisfaction with the troubled implementation of Obamacare, the administration’s controversial drone policies and last but not least, Snowden’s devastating revelations of an out-of-control national security state surveillance apparatus that would have boggled George Orwell’s mind. In fact, Barack Obama has charged more Americans with violating the Espionage Act than all other U.S. presidents combined.
As the press release for “Obama Spy Drama” puts it: “The President has been watching you. Now it’s your turn to watch him.” Hopefully, a much wider audience beyond L.A. will get a chance to watch -- and laugh at -- Big Bro’ O and his not-so-brave new world.
The City in a Swamp Productions’ “Obama Spy Drama” is being presented Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through March 30 at the Acme Comedy Theater, 135 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood, California, 90036. For info: (626)274-1745; www.acmecomedy.com. For City in a Swamp comedy clips see here.