If an award were given for best curtain speech in the Lexington theater scene, that award should go to Eric Seale, director of Studio Players world premiere production of local playwright Ross Carter's satirical romp What Would Jesus Pack?
The show opens with a red, white and blue-drenched, tongue-in-cheek patriotic video of Seale railing against cell phones and outlining other theater etiquette before flying eagle graphics obnoxiously (in a good way, somehow) point to the exits. Produced by Kody Kiser, who also stars in the lead role of Otis J. Bennett, the most conservative senator in America, the video is more than just self-indulgent fun. It clues the audience in to the tone of the show, which is wry, rompy satire with plenty of silliness thrown in.
A side effect of the video is that it also gives the audience advance permission to laugh, which isn't normally needed for a run of the mill comedy, but this comedy is different: it's about gun control.
Senator Bennett is ready to denounce a fictional president's gun control bill by allowing NRA lobbyists to write his speech when a national brouhaha erupts over whether Jesus would own guns if he was living in the United States today, hence the title. Throw in a son who is his political opposite, his Iraqi-Mexican-American girlfriend, an evangelical donor and NRA lobbyist who hate each other, a crazed gunman, and a wife who thinks all of the ensuing antics are her own personal entertainment, and you've got the ingredients for a side-splitting comedy.
Writing a comedy about gun control is both ambitious and daring. NRA character Rod Weatherby's (Tommy Gatton) first act, rapid-fire dismissal of phrasings and words that Senator Bennett should avoid in his speech on the matter — pretty much the entire second ammendment to the U.S. Constitution — illustrates how the sensitive topic is a land mine for misinterpretation and divisiveness, even with the best intentions.
Carter succeeds at navigating this explosive terrain with a litany of punny witticisms woven through a script that clips along quickly under Seale's direction. The key to the play's success is that despite the political topic, at the end of the day, it's just a comedy like most comedies, pitting different kinds of people against each other and playing those differences for laughs.
However, one element that elevates Carter's comedy from others is how he weaves playful language laced with witty double entendres and cultural references ranging from soap operas to children's musicals to Shakespeare and more (one of my favorite moments is when Stakar Fripp shouts "J'accuse!" at a dramatic moment) throughout the play.
Seale's cast delivers Carter's clever language with quick-paced timing. Kiser is commanding in the lead as the easily-bought senator who hilariouslytrips over his tongue, saying words like circumcision when he means to say circumspection. Gatton earns some of the night's biggest laughs as gun nut Weatherby. Stakar Fripp as Nick Bennett and Meredith Crutcher as Sharia Hussein share a vivacious chemistry as young lovers and political foes to Nick's father. Not unlike Seale's curtain speech, Sharon Sikorski's role as the senator's wife, who kicks back with a whiskey and enjoys — sometimes even exacerbates — the situation for her own personal entertainment, is a continual reminder to the audience that it is okay to laugh.
Carter's script pokes fun at folks with both conservative and liberal antics. But in the end, it takes a stance via the senator's final speech. I have mixed feelings about this tidy ending, although I cannot say much more without spoiling it. On one hand, it shows that only when the debate is framed by the personal and not the theoretical, can real traction be made. On the other, heavier hand, it risks undermining what worked so well throughout the play — riffing on the zany absurdities of the issue's extremists — rather than directly coming out for or against gun control.
Put another way, I think Carter's choice works, but I am not sure it is the best choice. As an audience member, I would rather a play take me deeper into an issue and let me draw my own conclusions afterward rather than drawing those conclusions for me.
Despite my unresolved consternation about the ending, Carter's writing is smart, clever, and most of all, entertaining. What Would Jesus Pack? further serves as a reminder that there's plenty of genuine playwriting talent right here in the Bluegrass that deserves to be cultivated.