ComedyFeaturedNew YorkReview

Transparent Falsehood: An American Travesty – Theater 511, New York

Writer: Gil Kofman

Director: Richard Caliban

Reviewer: Jamie Rosler

What, of art and satire, is the most effective, most worthy of our time, when reality can be so overwhelming as to seem fake itself? This question swiftly takes psychological primacy after an evening spent in the audience of Transparent Falsehood, Gil Kofman’s parody of Donald Trump and his presidency. According to the program notes, the production’s goal is “to italicize and reclaim what was lost in all the white noise of Trump’s thoughtless chaos.” Instead, it exaggerates already disturbing personal and political truths in a way that makes this administration’s abnormality more palatable, seeking sympathy for the devil and blunting life or death concerns into cheap punchlines.

The false narrative that loosely propels the story forward is that of our reality TV president leading up to, performing, and then continuously referencing an HBO special. Every scene is of real people, in false but vaguely plausible situations. Donald puts his stereotypically homosexual son Barron to bed by telling him about beheadings. Ivanka knows that her father is sexually attracted to her and she uses it to her advantage. Steve Bannon lets Trump take pictures of his penis at a public urinal and then tweet it. Melania is treated poorly by her husband, who believes he has his own film crew following him around the clock although they’re invisible to everyone else. Kofman employs a rather juvenile point of view to get laughs, and in that, he’s often successful. Trump is a buffoon, surrounded by open-secret corruption on par with no administration in recent historical memory. The superficial comedy well is deep. However, the deeper comedy of successful satire that allows for the exposing of new and insightful truths is nowhere to be found.

As an evening of pure entertainment, Transparent Falsehood is not without merit. Ezra Barnes gives the audience a perfectly incorrect imitation of Donald J. Trump. Focusing less on the cartoonish aspects of his behavior and more on the speech patterns plus the word and topic choices, he grounds the character with bigoted motivations and unhealthy ideas about human social engagement. He interacts with the audience, who find themselves unable to react without disdain. In a room filled with people who are members of the anti-Trump choir, even a solid impersonation can be too much to respond to with neutrality. Kofman’s script is rife with off-color jokes about incest, verbal and visual penis references, outward misogyny, and anti-Semitism. You’ll laugh, and you’ll shake your head, but none of it is new. Sadly, some of it appears to support rather than ridicule the bigotry. 

At a Passover Seder in Mar-a-Lago, Jared Kushner is characterized as an Orthodox Jewish man by the addition of payot (curled sidelocks), which is a level of caricature that no other person’s representation receives in this production. One hopes that the intention of having this scene immediately following one in which Bannon ironically complains about “the Jews and their kvetching” is supposed to skewer rather than extol anti-Jewish prejudice, but Richard Caliban’s directorial choice of having cast member Wyatt Fenner don these fake curls is itself an anti-Semitic choice. Additionally, it is completely unnecessary from a theatrical point of view.

A member of the press is planted in the audience, but this character is not played by a live actor. It is a life-sized dummy, which could be a comment on the state of the media, or it could be a money-saving production choice. Reporters and cable television played a distinct role in this administration’s rise, and we should all remain aware of that and of what they can do moving forward in the face of “fake news” and Fox News, but the production’s intention is unclear and could easily be seen as finger-pointing rather than supporting a free press.

In the final scene we learn about a recurring dream in which Donald and his deceased father form an infinite Russian nesting doll enigma. His father’s phantom is more than slightly reminiscent of Darth Vader and, spoiler alert, had a complicated relationship with his sons. Is this intended to reveal something previously unknown about the 45th President? Are we supposed to develop sympathy for the socially stunted 70-year-old man who spews racist ideologies and has access to the nuclear football?

This production is ultimately disappointing. The ensemble does a fantastic job with the material, but the material itself needs work. What truth is this satire trying to expose? If it’s intended to be lighthearted fare that simply ridicules those in power by exaggerating their flaws and bad policies, it needs to lean farther in that direction and develop clarity around who is being ridiculed in the first place. If, as the program notes say, the intention is to help “digest the ongoing horror with something other than disposable outrage,” then this production needs to dig into policy and its effects and leave the penis chandelier at home.

Runs until 19 May 2018 | Image: Joseph Henry Ritter

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