After you’re done casting your citizenly duty, you could head to a bar to watch the results roll in, or sit around the apartment refreshing your iPhone every five minutes. What we recommend, however, is to celebrate the finale of New York primary season by hightailing it over to The Debates: New York Primary Performance, presented by Theater in Asylum at The Kraine Theatre. Whether you’re a political junkie, a theater freak, or just kind of curious what all the fuss is about, the show is the perfect capsule of our surreal political culture.
Directed by Paul Bedard, The Debates is a two-hour “accumulating adaptation” of selections (and twisted imaginations) of the Democratic primary debates thus far (with some Republican stuff thrown in for kicks). With a cast of 14 actors and activists, there’s plenty of song and dance-offs, NRA-olympics gymnastics and, of course, superb mimicry of the candidates’ mannerisms. The actors seem to transform before your eyes, from a spot-on hunched-over Bernie impersonation to a frozen-lipped Hillary, swaying like a tipsy sailor.
“I love mimicry because it’s a way of literally trying on the candidates mannerisms and gestures–trying on their body. And I think that is a way to try on their ideas,” said Bedard. Besides making the audience cackle with glee, the impersonations also amplify the absurdity of political performance. Early on, the candidates introduce themselves while the rest of the cast exaggeratedly mimic their most notable hand gestures, highlighting the verbal tics of the most staged political speakers in the country. Sometimes the actors speak in front of video clips of past debate exchanges, and suddenly the candidate’s awkward pause 0r gentle head-nodding looks so much more significant.
The play’s mission is educational — not only will the audience get a clearer idea of where the candidates stand on issues like gun laws, Wall Street regulation and healthcare, but Bedard said the project has also introduced theater people to political codes and jargon, and political people to theatrical forms. “There are many reasons not to enter a theater and I think it’s similar to the reason that people don’t enter politics,” he said. “So often in political situations, if you’re the one who doesn’t know a politically correct term– you don’t have the words, you don’t have the jargon– it’s very difficult to safely learn.” Some of the scenes delve into exactly that tension, with “average Joe” citizens, confused at their options and trying to make sense of the political scenery bearing down on them.
To craft the show, Theater in Asylum teamed up with the NYC Democratic Socialists of America. They started with debate watch parties, followed by political analysis sessions where everyone involved could ask questions and engage in debate on their own. Then, with copious amounts of research led by Samantha Keogh, the scenes were created.
With the Democratic Socialists involved, you might expect the show to have a certain agenda. Bedard said they chose to focus on the Democrats because “that’s how we thought we could be most useful not only to ourselves but to our audience,” but tried to make it a balanced a show as possible. “We wanted to keep it a safe space to disagree, a safe space to be passionate, a safe space to empathize more with people who think different than us,” he said. The team behind it is diverse, made up of Bernie, Hillary and even O’Malley supporters, as well as some “deeply empathetic to the Republican who has no good option right now.”
But, to Bedard, debates are clearly ends in themselves. The show closes with the line (re-worked from a Clinton quote) “every debate is an attempt to forge an identity.”
“I think a show-stopping moment in a play is very, very similar to a show-stopping moment in a campaign. I think both a play and a campaign push us to ask: Is that who we are right now? Is that who we want to be?” Bedard said. “I’m really obsessed with this idea that the possibilities of who you are and what you believe broaden when you see plays. Plays often push you to consider a broader possibility of identity, and I think campaigns do the same thing and campaigns do it en masse for people–for the whole country.”
More importantly–does he have any advice for those of us trying to perfect our Bernie or Trump party-trick impressions? “It takes forever, but I think anyone can do it, not just actors,” Bedard said. “It’s a matter of, one: You memorize the words. Two: You mark in the script, where do they inhale? And you don’t inhale any time they don’t. Then you memorize the hands, then you memorize the eyes, then you memorize the timing.”
This may be the last Debates show in the city–unless there is a 10th Democratic debate, that is.
The Debates, April 19 at 8 p.m. Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street, near 2nd Avenue.