Farce within farce within farce: politics, celebrity and the media. Two new Kat Sandler comedies running simultaneously at the Citadel. A review

Martha Burns and Amber Lewis (front), Glenn Nelson, Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison (rear) in The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker

Jesse Lipscombe in The Candidate, photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Talk about real-life horning in on theatre (stealing punchlines, sucking up the supply of public outrage, eating all the fake cheese out of the collective fridge). Here’s the thing: It’s an age when politics (in many locales and close to home) has actually become a farce.

An architecture of escalating lies teetering on promotional fictions and propped up by ever-more frantic spin-doctoring? Come on. You’ve watched the news; work with me here. 

And the Citadel has stepped up to this giddy state of affairs with not one but two new entwined political comedies whose behind-the scenes connections and logistics constitute a high-speed farce in themselves. The Party and The Candidate, by the hot Toronto playwright Kat Sandler, run simultaneously in two different theatres, many staircases apart, with the same 10-actor cast pelting between them, scene by scene, to play the same characters, nine months apart. So what we’re looking at, moment by moment watching either show, is the farce behind the farce behind the farce. This full-throttle theatrical experiment that taps directly into the adrenalized vein of farce is directed jointly by the playwright and the Citadel’s Daryl Cloran, who commissioned it.

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“Repeat after me ‘everything is perfectly fine’,” as the old-pro campaign manager Pauline Abel (Colleen Wheeler in a sensational comic performance) snaps at earnest new intern Dill Pickerel (Luc Tellier, equally funny) on his first day in politics. In farce, as in politics, this is never true. By the time of The Candidate, she’s declaring “we are killin’ it!” when she’s not saying “the shit show must go on!” Also, never true. 

At The Party — which happens first in chronological time and is a lot of fun with one very big detraction — we’re at one. A party, that is. In the intimate cabaret setting of the Rice, we’re guests at a posh birthday bash for filthy rich media mogul Butch Buchanan (Glenn Nelson). As per tradition, the occasion is also a fund-raiser for a political party, The Left, where two rival candidates for the party nomination as Chief Leader are courting Butch’s endorsement and donor cash — with nods to us, his old rich fat-cat guests. OK, we’re the only characters at the gathering having drinks in Citadel sippy-cups instead of champagne flutes or highball glasses, but it’s pretty damn incriminating. “Rich old people make me really nervous,” says Dill, who’s instantly been re-christened Virgin by Pauline.

Kevin Bundy and Martha Burns, The Party, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ryan Parker.

Heather Straughan (Martha Burns), the career politico with the Hillary pantsuit and the Hillary accessory of a persistent cheating husband scandal, sizes us up for our wallet-opening potential like a tiger surveying fresh lunch meat. Heather is a veteran of gritting her teeth and rising to any occasion; still, the unexpected presence of  the cheating husband in question, played to Clinton-esque comic perfection by Kevin Bundy, is not going to be a plus to her evening, you feel.

The other candidate for Chief Leader, Bill Biszy, (Jesse Lipscombe, in a charmingly funny performance), is a distractible dim bulb of an ex-movie star with a string of hit Sharkman action flicks to his credit and not much more in his noggin than Sharkman speeches and the habit of a fan base and being adored. 

Glenn Nelson, Jesse Lipscombe, Thom Allison in The Party. Photo by Ryan Parker

Bill has a partner, too, a breezy drag queen boyfriend (Thom Allison) with a fabulous wardrobe (designer Megan Koshka), a gift of the gab, and a talk show, What’s The Butt?. Marky is someone you’d always want at a party, and Allison lights up (in neon) any scene he’s in.

So, a veteran politician with a grasp of the issues and a platform with planks and all that, not to mention a campaign manager in perpetual overdrive (Pauline’s pulse no doubt enhanced by mad dashes from The Candidate, at the other end of the building). Versus a political ninny with a one-word platform (“Hope!” because it’s, well, hopeful), who’s “this country’s only gay, black, aquatic super-hero.”

Sandler has a way with comic lines and wise-ass throw-aways, withering putdowns (Wheeler has a feast), overlapping staccato repartee, cranked up to manic tempo, not least because everyone’s in two plays simultaneously. And the party setting, with its free-floating kookiness, its witty tangents and smart-ass small talk, its unexpected entrances and exits, suits Sandler’s kind of sassy comic writing to a T.

Glenn Nelson, Amber Lewis in The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson

One of the juiciest characters, Vidashka, a glamorous and beaming siren of Soretria, an eastern European country of hilariously unremitting awfulness, is suddenly on the scene (for reasons I cannot reveal for fear of Soretrian revenge). “Vy vood you bury hatchet?. You can use for many things.”  And you just can’t get enough of her: Amber Lewis is a knock-out in a role that’s written with shameless pizzaz. 

That’s why the ending, which lets the air out of this airy but piquant concoction so alarmingly, is a huge letdown. The extended rant has none of the sparkle of the writing in the rest of the play. Alas, The Party thuds at the end in a way I never did understand (even after I saw The Candidate the next night). But the getting to this moment is highly entertaining.

The Candidate, which is on the Maclab stage thrusting into a 700-seat house, picks up nine months later on the eve of the election. It’s a full-fledged, old-school door-slammer, a seven-door farce. The opening scene, at matching podiums, is a political debate between the title character and the incumbent, Butch Buchanan’s racist, homophobic, right-wing twin brother Woodruff Buchanan, antediluvian in his views, played by Nelson in his spare time. “I never said people of colour were all lazy. They’re not. All lazy.” You will see the off-again-on-again fortunes of Nelson’s moustache in this venerable farce device.

Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron in The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson.

In the course of The Candidate, people will enter and exit in a mad rush (or, if they’re lucky like Marky, in Megan Koshka’s flamboyant costumes). Trousers will drop, doors will slam, the wrong doors will get opened at the wrong time, people will try to look like they haven’t been canoodling (there’s a word I’ve never used). They’ll heap bald-faced lies on each other; they’ll hedge, take pratfalls, pun, and blurt Malapropisms. They’ll “yoke” (as Vidashka says). Of course, there’s a pregnant nun. Why wouldn’t there be? And one of the repertoire’s largest current repertoires of nun puns. 

Jesse Lipscombe and Thom Allison, The Candidate, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The characters are back for this “sequel” with telling little differences and telling consistencies. Lipscombe, for one, unerringly calibrates Bill’s minute development in the intervening nine months. The performance is very funny; our man is always a half-beat behind comprehension of any moment, reverting under the merest whiff of pressure to Sharkman epigrams. As someone says of his political acumen, Bill has always thought “incumbent” was “the belt part of a tuxedo.”

As the only “serious” character, the straight man (sorry, straight person) to the unravelling comic mayhem around her, Burns steps up with fortitude to a role that’s written with minimal jokes and more repetition. There are a lot of repeats of the moments where the tiniest flicker of a grimace is code for  “you’ve got to be kidding.”

You could chart plot developments in these two productions in the exact gradations of smiles — from the molar-grinding suck-it-up incrementally through wincingly pained or noblesse oblige to high-beam fake. 

Colleen Wheeler, centre, The Candidate. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

At the centre of the action, in constant high-jog across the stage from entrance to exit, is Wheeler’s Pauline, the foul-mouthed fixer in charge of family values optics, damage control, and photo ops, and her assistant Dill, whose wide-eyed idealism is beginning to erode a little around the edges. Tellier’s comic timing is one of the delights of the evening.

Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks nails the teenage cynicism of a smart adoptee. And Rachel  Bowron as — well, again I must hedge, for your own enjoyment — a daffy but determined new character (and continuing Sharkman fan) is amusing, too.

Designer Koshka rises to the preposterous double-barrelled visuals, in props and costumes, with evident glee. And Kimberly Purtell’s lighting salutes the full theatrical potential of the political arena. 

The Candidate starts (and has to, by the premise) at such a feverish comic pitch that it strains at times to to sustain itself for the two hour 15 minute running time. But once set in motion, the farce machinery is fuelled by inopportune disclosures, revealing repartee,  mistaken identities, sight gags, out-and-out lies buffed up to be half-truths. And here’s the cool craziness of the experiment: it’s paralleled by the near-misses of the farcical logistics of doing two plays in two theatres at the very same time with one cast. Every exit from The Party is (not counting sprint time between theatres) an entrance into The Candidate. And vice versa. 

The media and celebrity culture and politics, in the sack together in an ungodly three-way,  political correctness platitudes and their vicious old-school reverse, earnest idealists and pop culture trash-talkers … they all get teased or defrocked or compromised in the course of The Party and The Candidate. Both comedies have flaws. But both are funny, and fun. You can see just one — of course you can — and laugh. See both, and you’ll be ringside for a fulsome view of absurdity where principles are caught with their pants down, in compromising positions. Ah, politics. 

Sharkman isn’t real, one character is moved to advise a die-hard fan, who is only momentarily fazed. “Real life isn’t real,” she retorts. Whew, thank god for that. They really had been going for a sec there.   


The Party and The Candidate

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Kat Sandler

Directed by: Kat Sandler and Daryl Cloran

Starring: Thom Allison, Rachel Bowron, Kevin Bundy, Martha Burns, Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks, Amber Lewis, Jesse Lipscombe, Glenn Nelson, Luc Tellier, Colleen Wheeler

Where: Citadel Rice and Citadel Maclab

Running: tonight (in preview) through April 21

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com

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