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Dubya and his cronies take a comic beating

Two plays, one in London and one in Paris, poke pointed fun at the actions of the Bush administration.

June 04, 2003|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

LONDON — A few months ago, a group of Texans flew in for an evening to see "The Madness of George Dubya," a satirical play about the man who some people in the world still have a hard time believing is really the president of the United States.

They whooped it up as a short man in Superman T-shirt, pajamas, silver-sprayed hair and thick painted-on eyebrows spoke in a too-Southern accent, squinting and frowning as the malapropisms slipped from his thin lips (War on Tourism, Iraquistania, Arabistania, Guacamole Bay, weapons of mass distraction, etc.). They jeered as he stirred from his teddy-bear-hugging slumber to give an idiot's commentary on the near-destruction-of-the-world-by- megalomaniac-lunatics action, or to point a toy pistol, or to almost kiss Tony Blair on the mouth.

It might say something about the state of the nation that Americans starved for live political satire have to fly across the pond to get their fill. Last fall, Michael Moore staged a sold-out one-man show that revisited much of the content of his bestselling "Stupid White Men" on the London stage, not on Broadway. And in Paris, Attilio Maggiulli, the head of the Comedie Italienne, a small Montparnasse theater troupe, has recently reprised his "George W. Bush, or God's Sad Cowboy," a political spoof that opened April 30, two weeks after the Iraq war was declared effectively over. Three days into the run, the Italian director was attacked by two unidentified men, who punched him and slashed his face with a knife. The play closed, but it reopened May 20.

Written and directed by Justin Butcher, "The Madness of George Dubya" opened in January in a north London fringe theater and has since made its way to the West End. It currently runs at the Arts Theatre until the end of June.

"We've had hundreds and hundreds of Americans coming to see this show," says the Oxford-educated, 33-year-old Butcher, whose best-known play to date is his 2001 "Scaramouche Jones," which starred Pete Postlethwaite. Butcher sits in the cafe of the theater on a recent afternoon, a McDonald's dominating the view from its large windows. "The vast majority of Americans who come to see this show just wet themselves laughing. We've had something like 50 theaters in the United States petitioning us for the rights to produce the play there."

Those interested include Tim Robbins, who came to see the show recently and said he wanted to bring it to New York.

Thrown together quickly

Both pieces were dashed off in days and flung on stage quickly, angry responses to a sense of frustration about escalating world events -- and it shows. "The Madness of George Dubya" -- which takes its title from "The Madness of King George," the 1991 Alan Bennett play and 1994 film about King George III's descent into insanity -- is a noisy, grossly caricatured rip-off of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 "Dr. Strangelove" in which a whacked-out U.S. commanding general orders a nuclear strike against Iraq -- and nearly sets off an all-out war in the Middle East. It includes reprised and rewritten songs by 1960s political songwriter Tom Lehrer and features such thinly veiled personalities as Colin Dick, Donald Duck and Tony Blear.

Encouraged by the success of Moore's one-man show, Butcher wrote the play in three days after Christmas, rehearsed it in six, and had it on stage in a 100-seat theater Jan. 14 to coincide with the buildup toward war. He hasn't slowed down with the war's end. He adds a few current events jokes each day to keep it feeling fresh. He takes as many shots at his government as at the Bush administration, and the only jokes that get a bigger laugh than the Yank-bashing ones are those about the French -- whom the British love to hate as much as Americans do. In one memorable line, "Dubya" vows to wage war on "poverty, tyranny, injustice and France," striking at its stores of Camembert.

Reviewers have mostly applauded the effort, if they've been somewhat lukewarm about the result. Michael Billington of the left-wing Guardian newspaper said: "Satire is all but dead on the London stage, so this show deserves the warmest of welcomes," and went on to declare the burgeoning movement toward using theater as "a vital focus for opposition," possessing "a capacity for rapid response that TV drama either cannot -- or will not -- attempt to match."

The right-wing Daily Telegraph said: "Convinced that this would be a lumbering attempt to catch -- and cash in on -- the mood of the moment, imagine my surprise on finding Butcher's lampooning assault on the most powerful man in the world and his buddies a welcome blast of light relief amid all the doom, gloom and rolling news." Another reviewer said: "OK, so it's not subtle, and its student-revue-style antics -- soldiers in fishnets, a cockney cleaning lady and some ropey satirical songs -- can grate, but when 'Dubya' hits the mark, it has a devastating effect."

Preaching to the choir

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