RED HOT PATRIOTby Margaret Engel and Allison Engel
Directed by Dana Schultes
Set Design - Jim Covault
Sound and Video Design - Eliot Haynes
Costume Design - Jim Covault and Peggy Kruger-O'Brien
Lighting Design - Michael O'Brien
Props/Set D-cor - Lynn Lovett
Georgia Clinton - Molly
Justin Rhoads - Helper
Reviewed Performance: 5/20/2012
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Those Northern newspaper boys didn't quite get Ivins' kind of humor and her New York Times career was short-lived, but it was here in the heart of Texas that she was meant to shine, and shine she did. Politicians knew her by name and Congressmen and Senators had her number on their Rolodex (pre speed dial!). They loved it when she sarcastically quoted them, and as one of those nitwits told her, "Baby, you put my name in your paper!"
One has to remember that Ivins turned out those articles and columns as the only woman, short of the naked one on the press room calendar, she told us, in a world of chauvinistic male journalists. Politics was also a "men only" world and she became one of the boys with her sharp wit, her drinking and smoking, but mainly with her intelligence and brilliant writing that helped those newspapers keep going to press day after day. We could certainly use her now.
For those a bit too young to have read her work during her lifetime, or are uninitiated, Stage West has happily allowed us a peek into the world of Molly Ivins via their current production, Red Hot Patriot by Margaret and Allison Engel. The Engels themselves know a thing or two about journalism, both having been reporters, or columnist, political speech writer and editor. Turning to playwriting, the two naturally placed Ivins where she felt most at home, at the desk of her newspaper job. Designer Jim Covault's simple wooden office desk, padded swivel chair and back credenza table was surrounded by those industrially green painted walls. An old Associated Press (AP) wire machine stood to the side, in wait.
Lynn Lovett's props and set decor included an old electric typewriter and Texas' true state mascot, an upright stuffed armadillo complete with cowboy hat and revolver. A back wall projection screen chronicled the world and political history during Ivins' career, from Lt. Governor Bob Bullock (whom she called "Professor") to Nixon, The Vietnam War to Reagan. And then there was Bush, George W. Bush, her meal ticket during his "reign" as Governor and then President. She was the one to dub him "Shrub" (and I thought I was the one!) and two books on his governorship and then his presidency made her nationally known.
Red Hot Patriot guided us through Ivins' life as she commented on childhood photos, pictures of her early years as a journalist and all those politicians who either loved or loathed her. The play's subtle theme revolved around Ivins' relationship with her father and how his unwillingness to accept her lifestyle became the ultimate influence on her life.
The play began as Ivins, played by Georgia Clinton, sat at her desk, painfully attempting to pluck out an article about her father. She kept telling funny stories and commenting on those slides, making procrastination pauses to distract her from writing about him the way she had done so many others - with the truth. Throughout the play, a copyboy would enter and tear off the latest bulletin from the AP machine, silently handing the page to Ivins as lead in to the play's next transition.
A favorite actress in the Dallas and Fort Worth area, Georgia Clinton became Molly Ivins with the assistance of a Texas drawl, red wig and some scuffed up cowboy boots. Casually dressed in jeans, T-shirt and long-sleeved blue chambray shirt, picked out by designers Jim Covault and Peggy Kruger-O'Brien, Clinton played her low-key and let the script and its subject matter do all the work. It was easy to get the laughs or something more when certain people's pictures appeared. Turned away from the screen, George W's photo came up to boos and hisses and Clinton, shielding her eyes from the sight, exclaimed, "It's him isn't it!" The laughter and hoots still ring in my ears.
Red Hot Patriot had a lot of bawdy humor in it, as well it should, and again all Clinton had to do was quote Ivins or some other satirical writer or entertainer to get the audience going. There wasn't much I could repeat here but one of the cleaner ones was when Ivins spoke of our dirty Texas politics:
"Six out our last seven speakers have been indicted for one thing or another, the exception being the one who was shot to death by his wife. She was indicted but not convicted because in Texas, we recognize public service when we see it."
A play, even one like Red Hot Patriot whose main character had such likeability and intrinsic humor, cannot rely on that humor solely. This is where Stage West's production lost some of what makes a good production great. The Engels wrote about specific points in Molly Ivins' life that were heartbreaking, painful or deeply angered her, yet under the direction of Dana Schultes, they were lightly passed over or did not have the natural progression to that pain or anger. When Clinton spoke of the Vietnam War and Ivins' loss of a loved one, her anti-war outburst was turned upstage and came out of nowhere. It was as if the director was afraid to detract from the hilarity so as not to lose the audience. But it is those variances, those ebbs and flows in a play that can make such moments poignant and memorable. Those moments were not fully explored in this production.
Some of the staging was also half-hearted. If Ivins was a drinking and smoking kind of gal, then to light a cigarette and take one puff before putting it out, or open a bottle of beer and take only one gulp lessens the apparent intention. In a play about Molly Ivins, either do it all out or don't do it at all. There were a couple of water breaks in the play, understandable when it's a one person show, but it would have been less awkward if Clinton had poured water from the thermos while still talking, sipping it casually, and not let the action come to a complete halt.
Two times, Clinton stepped down off the stage to speak in front or sip that beer, for what reason or purpose was not made clear, so was merely blocking for blocking sake.
Clinton also had some hesitation portraying this larger than life character. Some of her lines, especially in the first part, were spoken as if read, with none of the natural thought progression of saying something for the first time. Later on though, Clinton relaxed, loosened up, and her words flowed more naturally. Playing Ivins subtly, in the style of David Sedaris or Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain, some of the humor was lightly washed over and lost its punch. The strangest and most off putting part of the play was the sound effects by Eliot Haynes.
While his slides aided the plot tremendously, the overpowering sound of clinks and clanks between photos was confusing and annoying. Some of them were unrecognizable, did not correlate with what was up on the screen, and so were ineffective.
Red Hot Patriot took the audience right up to Texas current events. With Ivins' words, "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention", a picture of Rick Perry came on to even more uproarious boos and laughter.
The play's ending, with the AP machine beeping out two last bulletins - about her father and then another about herself - was an obvious choice but still effective to bring Ivins' story full circle. In those last quiet moments, Clinton became Ivins as political activist, rallying the audience to not get complacent. "We need a trumpet call here. We need people in the streets banging pots and pans." Here the sound effect of those pots and pans, getting louder and clanging faster, was completely appropriate.
As Ivins sat at her now empty desk she retorted, "I know what people are going to ask after I'm gone. They're going to ask, `What would Molly say?' Hell, I said plenty. What would Molly say? . . . . What would you say?" In a play that celebrated her life, Stage West gave the play the freedom to be itself, to say what it needed to say with humor, irreverence, passion and joy. I believe Molly would be mighty proud.
Stage West, 821/823 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth, TX 76104
Runs through June 17th
Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays-Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm
Tickets are $28.00. A $36.00 per person Prix Fixe Friday Special buys dinner, gratuity and the show, not including alcoholic beverages or appetizers.
$5.00 student Rush tickets can be purchased one-half hour before each performance if available.
For info & to purchase tickets, go to www.stagewest.org.