nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
January 6, 2011
There’s a difference between provocative and thought-provoking. Freedom Club, a collaboration between playwright Adriano Shaplin and director Whit McLaughlin, is almost constantly provocative with, to my mind, varying degrees of effectiveness: there’s also a difference between the provocation of unsettling presumptions and challenging platitudes—making John Wilkes Booth a hero fighting against tyranny—and the provocation of gross-out comedy—watching Mary Todd Lincoln give Abe a hand-job. All too often, I felt that the piece chose being smirky over being genuinely confrontational or even incisively satirical. And all too rarely does Freedom Club actually become thought-provoking, or rise above shallow mockery to engage with the—genuinely interesting and important—ideas bubbling around it: freedom versus tyranny, gender politics, the nature and effectiveness of political activism and, on the largest level, America’s trajectory between the era of Reconstruction and our own historical moment.
The piece is split into two parts, the first set in 1865 and the second in 2015. Part 1 takes place in the immediate run-up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth—the politics of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the decisions being made, especially about the future and status of the former slaves, by Lincoln; Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Henry Seward; and Seward’s political advisor, Thurlow Weed—with opinions, not always listened to, also being offered by Mary Todd Lincoln and Seward’s wife, Franny. Meanwhile, actor John Wilkes Booth rehearses Shakespeare’s Richard II under the direction of his brother Edwin, fulminates on tyranny, seduces women right and left, and plots his assassination of Lincoln.
Stylistically, this part of the play is exciting; it’s structured as a series of tightly interwoven cross-cuts back and forth from Booth’s perspective to Lincoln’s, and both the language and the crisp physicality of McLaughlin’s staging can be extremely effective (especially in some of Booth’s monologues). And Booth’s characterization as both a kind of nineteenth-century matinee idol, who cuts a swath through society with his magnetism and irresistibility to women, and a radical activist is interesting. But the writing also relies a little too heavily on the gag of having characters who normally speak in a formal, archaic diction suddenly slip into modern language (especially Lincoln, who mostly speaks in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way out of sync with the others), replete with profanity and anachronistic cultural references (the Vietnam War, song lyrics, “popping America’s cherry”), and a lot of the actual discussion of politics feels like undigested exposition.
Part Two skips ahead 150 years, to the near future. By 2015, Barack Obama has been assassinated, and a never-named centrist woman is president. The characters are members of an underground political collective/commune in Virginia (Booth’s southern home state), dedicated to abortion rights in a state where there’s only one clinic that will still perform them. Tension is growing in the ranks between those who think clinic defense is in and of itself a form of activism, and those who want to fight a more active battle—and meanwhile, the group has been infiltrated by undercover federal agents trying to pursue them for possession of illegal weapons and illegal drugs (both the recreational kind and abortion-causing medication). The parallels to John Wilkes Booth become explicit when one of the group’s members resigns and heads to Washington on an assassination mission of his own in an attempt to strike a more concrete blow in the struggle against tyranny—though in this case, the fascism of centrism.
The acting ensemble is strong throughout, with crisp delineations in diction, physicality, and emotional coloration between the nineteenth-century historical figures they play in Part 1 and the twenty-first-century activists they play in Part 2.
I want to admire Freedom Club for some of the risks it takes: making a "rock star" character a pro-slavery activist who drops racist epithets casually and calls Lincoln a tyrant while still being a charming lady-killer; questioning certain cherished tenets of liberal orthodoxy—Lincoln as crusading hero, pro-choice activism as heroism—but I ended up feeling like its provocations have little purpose other than a kind of knee-jerk derision of ideas or beliefs.
Shaplin, in an interview on nytheatre.com, says "What is more boring than an ideologue?" And I think he’s absolutely right—but the expression or exploration of ideas isn’t the same thing as the unthinking parroting of ideology. In its efforts to avoid the latter, Freedom Club seems too often also to reject the former.