Pop Punk Anti-Hero Andrew Jackson with Soulstice
Soulstice Theatre’s snug, little space echoes with populist anger this early autumn as it presents a staging of Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. It’s a pop punk history driven by music reminiscent of the sound of glossy California punk bands like Green Day and the less-hardcore end of the Dead Kennedys. It’s a cozy, aggressive and aggressively comic glance at the life of the seventh president of the United States.
Director J.T. Backes gracefully shoves a larger-than-life narrative into a very small space with the production. There’s minimal set and props. The stage is dominated by huge stylized “AJ” initials which serve as doors and a kind of a backdrop for the action. Leah Dueno’s costume design is a fun mix of 19th century attire and 20th century punk. Choreographer Liza Basso does a really good job of bringing the ensemble together in a way that feels very wild and angry without actually being incoherent and formless. It’s a delicate balance, but all the design aspects of the show feel solidly executed. Even inconsistencies and dropouts in sound add to the stylishly punk feel of the production.
Timbers and Friedman’s story settles-in with the charismatic sneer of self-awareness. Right away, it’s apparent that they’re telling a story and they’re going to have a good time doing it. Bill Sakalaucks is an appealing, young Andrew Jackson with black eyeliner carrying a mic in his back pocket. He’s accompanied by an ensemble that includes a variety of personalities that begin to assert themselves right away in the show's opening moments. Lydia Rose Eiche, Tess Cinpinki and Julia Luebke give the production a sexily punk feel while LeDareon Copeland and Zachary Dean add to a wild visual diversity in the cast. Gladys Chmiel approaches the stage in the clashing aesthetic of a traditionally patriotic woman in an electric mobility scooter. Her character is trying to act as narrator. Timbers and Friedman aren’t afraid to kill the narrator. Chmiel is memorable in a role that will not die. The symbolism in this show is everywhere and it's not afraid to ram it right into your face. Far from being too over-rendered, its lack of subtlety is actually refreshing in a pop punk context.
The story begins to assert itself through a snarky comic style that delivers the story of Jackson’s early life with surprisingly sharp wit. Sakalaucks sometimes rushes through his dialogue, but it feels authentic to the production...it’s like the character himself knows where the story is heading and he just wants to get there as quickly as possible. He slows down and takes his time with it when the character is enjoying moments of glory and accomplishment before reluctantly moving on to the bigger messes that Jackson helped to create and destroy in the course of US history. Sakalaucks' best moments are shared with a dazzlingly appealing Lydia Rose Eiche in the role of his wife Rachel. The two temper each other quite well in the more grippingly dramatic moments of the story.
Punk-inspired pop rarely gets its place onstage. This is a musical for people who don’t like musicals. In so many ways it simply plays out like a show at Quarters or Linneman’s or the Circle-A or any of a few dozen other bars all over the city. Kind of strange to get that kind of a feel from a trip to St. Francis, but it's a fun space. There are some great moments in the music. Sakalaucks himself is brilliantly corrosive in his performance of, “Rock Star.” The lyrics are intensely infectious: “Why don't you just shoot me in the head," Sakalaucks snarls, "‘cause you know I'd be better off dead.” Also of note here is Lydia Rose Eiche as she summons an overwhelming anger for “The Great Compromise.”
One of my favorite moments in the production is a delicate mixture of morose comedy as Jackson makes various deals with native american nations. Julia Luebke channels a stylishly dark Siouxsie Sioux as she sings a soulfully haunting "Ten Little Indians.” Really happy to see Zachary Dean in a comic role with darker undertones as Martin Van Buren--a man characterized as being comically taken with Jackson until he is forced to be Vice President for a man who doesn’t know the limits of his own presidency. Dean continues to be a uniquely distinctive presence onstage that fits perfectly into a larger ensemble without overshadowing anyone else.
The dizzyingly sophisticated complexity of a very difficult point in US history begins to bleed out over the stage as Jackson goes from military hero to politician to president. Genocide and populism mix in a show that covers a tremendous array of moods and themes that echo into the current presidential election as we’re faced with yet another challenging point in the nation’s history.
Soulstice Theatre’s production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through Oct. 8 at Soulstice’s space on 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave. in St. Francis. For more information, visit Soulstice Theatre online.