The thing about a political cartoon, drenched in its satire like a queen in a studded robe, is that you get the joke before the punch line. A good satire will have layers under which the depths of its subversiveness reveal pockets of comedic gold. A good satire will make you jealous you didn’t come up this wit yourself.
“The Police,” Subversive Theatre Collective’s annual Infringement Festival entry – well, nine of the last 10 years, though who’s counting – is a perfect example of how both striking and flaccid satire can be. It is often the framework of a particular time, in a particular place, that accentuates the alternative, underground message in a piece of absurdist art. Its response to social unrest, political upheaval is exactly relevant to its effect. Few can withstand the test of time to be timeless classics.
Slawomir Mrozek’s one-act is likely one of the stronger contenders for that timeless stamp. Mrozek, the famous Polish absurdist playwright who died last year, wrote “The Police” in 1958, his first, and would go onto big success in the genre. His 1965 full-length play, “Tango,” a criticism of totalitarianism, would be his breakout. A familiar angle in most of his works was the hypocrisy and idiocy, in his view, of authority. “Power to the people,” he might have inaugurated, in so many words.
Subversive director (and Infringement founder) Kurt Schneiderman takes on Mrozek’s play with a heavy tribute to the late playwright. It is clear from both his stage announcement, as well as his program notes, that he feels a great debt to this playwright, for not only his body of work but for his empowering voice. It is a fitting tie-in to Infringement’s mission and city-rampant programming.
Our cast is up to the challenge, for the most part, and Schneiderman’s direction is nobly classical, fussing very little with this format. It tries its hardest to keep up its own fast pace, which is often fueled by a moment of slapstick or a glimmering wink-wink. When it does lose steam, intermittently throughout the hour-plus performance, it drags on your patience. We get the joke, you might think; what else have you got, you might ask.
Michael Starzynski is a fantastic Chief of Police, the buffoonish leader of a 19th-century police force that has found itself without anybody to arrest. The totalitarian state, at which the Chief and his officers have been most successful at enforcing, has surveilled every possible (or impossible) suspect in the city, and is even releasing those reformed criminals they no longer have room for. Is this release a kind gesture to a reformed criminal, jailed for throwing a dead bomb at the leading General? Or is it a plot to foil the justice system by releasing criminals to the public for the police’s own benefit?
The Chief throws his hands up in the air as if he just discovered he had them. You wonder if even he knows the answer, the power in his shield.
The Prisoner, played enthusiastically by Danica Riddick, seems ahead of the curve. She knows what’s about to go down, nodding to the audience’s hunches while keeping up an entertaining cartoonish voice. Riddick continues to impress in her various local roles. This is one that gives her a whole new toolkit with which to play. You miss her when she’s off stage.
Carlton Franklin is a troublesome spot in this ensemble, which is a shame because he’s pushing all his energy out there in his role as Police Sergent-Provocateur, a hard-working underling who is pushed into the Chief’s ridiculous plot. Franklin’s energy is not misplaced as much as maybe his role is miscast. He lacks the self-awareness that Starzynski and Riddick are overflowing with and that this genre naturally overflows with.
Xavier Harris, as both the Constable and the Sergant’s wife, is fittingly funny in just the right spots. It’s a small part, but Harris lets himself be known.
The General makes his appearance late in the play, but thankfully, he’s played by David C. Mitchell, whose ability to steal a scene is criminal. His humor comes with the most caricatured bravado, borrowing enough from Sasha Baron Cohen’s “Dictator” role to bring some contemporary satirical reference. Mitchell sets the tone for consistency in voice and commitment to message. Even the strongest other players might have been stronger to follow in Mitchell’s steps, though it’s a wonderful bonus when he arrives.
Also of note is J. Tim Raymond’s astute set design. Raymond’s painted walls, windows and doors might not seem so consequential upon first glance, but their two-dimensional, thickly outlined strokes add nicely to the cartoonish sensibility throughout the rest of the piece. There’s layering in those details, which didn’t necessarily have to be there, and might not have been there given the bareness of the stage and, presumably, budget. Another noteworthy touch to this production, bringing the city’s festival into the theater’s grip once again, are the readings by assistant director Albert Falcone of Mrozek’s short stories in the two scene intervals. They are a fitting tribute to Mrozek in this production, his own mini festival of fringe.
3 stars (Out of four)
Presented by Subversive Theatre in the Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. through Aug. 2. Tickets are $10. For information, visit www.subversivetheatre.org.