The Public Theater’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson comes complete with an audience proviso—and it’s not just that the performance contains fog and strobe effects. “You have to bring some ass to get some ass,” declares Benjamin Walker (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) as President-to-be, Andrew Jackson. “I’m going to put it in you,” he continues. Whether “it” refers to a fast and flashy depiction of history, a rollicking alt-rock score or an intelligent yet ironic sense of humor is ultimately irrelevant. Whatever “it” is, we take it.
Bloody Bloody is one of the most immersive theatrical experiences I’ve had this year and it doesn’t even require audience participation—except for bringing your ass into the theatre—but that it’s hard not to want to participate in the frenzied, pop-infused storytelling. At the launch of the show, the always-appreciated nerdy-girl-in-wheelchair, glasses and thrift store knitwear serves as its narrator. That is, until Jackson shoots her in the neck. Goodbye, framed narrative. Hello, blood. Jackson states, “I think I can take it from here.”
We don’t miss the narrator—though she is played with a tremendous comic awareness by Colleen Werthmann (Gone Missing). Walker and his talented entourage manage to tell the story with color, flair and style on their own. Even while on his knees—representing his childhood—as he witnesses the deaths of his family members by way of Indians’ arrows, Walker commands the stage. Following this tragedy, Jackson becomes a kind of juice box wielding Fess Parker in a coonskin cap as he tries to navigate the wild frontier in the “era of whoop-assing.” As far as history lessons go, Bloody Bloody is incredibly detailed, surprisingly relevant and excitingly modern. As the production unfolds, Bloody Bloody proves itself to be extremely smart political satire in its portrayal of the blood-smeared rocker Jackson and his pursuit of a “brand of maverick egalitarian democracy.” Hip, radical and sexually charged, Bloody Bloody’s brand of politics isn’t just “populism”, it’s, as per the song, “popujizm”.
Adding to the appeal of Jackson’s exploration of populism and his rise to presidency is the visually riveting emo-fantasy world in which the events of his life are played out on stage. The set is an Urban Outfitters accessory whore’s dream. Hipster regalia dazzle and intrigue the eye in every direction. The hazy, rouge-tinted room is accented with chandeliers, framed portraits, plastic-wrapped animal heads, Christmas lights, chandeliers, candles, and the must-have-hipster-accessory, duct tape. With every scene change and music number comes a new discovery; the set is in a constant state of flux with surprising lighting choices and clever design. The overall effect of Bloody Bloody’s staging is eclectic and energetic. This is a rockstar’s paradise—a nexus of cultural appropriation and entrancing social defiance.
The fact that Bloody Bloody relies so much on poaching elements of popular culture is not a hindrance to the historical narrative. Instead, these pieces act as relatable signposts and shorthand for human behavior. Notably, Bloody Bloody contains perhaps the best use of the music of Cher in a dramatic narrative form. It’s a glimpse into an alt-glam pastiche world that works particularly well in its combination of stage spectacle and over-the-top melodrama. There a good number of original, well-crafted, often hilarious songs too accompanied by tight and amusing choreography—when was the last time you saw a dance number with muskets or a good ol’ fashioned bar brawl with barrels? Overall the production’s aesthetic synthesis of modern and 19th century is clear, appropriate to the story and absolutely entertaining. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson proves you can have your history and fuck it too.