MacBush the Musical, full text of 3 reviews

#1: “This lively play shows there’s room for comedy despite the tragedy woven into its historical and Shakespearean material.” Allison M. Jones

#2. “Dawson tackles the Bush gang … as Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of the boys perform a grand chain of murder, mayhem and musical misadventure.” Gary Smith

#3. “Mixing clever, biting political satire with direct anti-war statements, showing how power corrupts and evil proliferates, especially when done in the name of ‘good.'” Ellen Jaffe

#1.  Theatre Review of MacBush the Musical by Allison M. Jones, View Magazine, May 5-11, 2016

Hamilton’s Artword Artbar is a small place with a lot of heart. Its theatre ensemble has taken on the ambitious MacBush the Musical, a “mash up of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the George ‘Dubya’ Bush administration during 9/11 and the War on Iraq.”

This lively play shows there’s room for comedy despite the tragedy woven into its historical and Shakespearean material. However, it threads its laughs with pathos and an undeniably sinister undercurrent for those who recall the political landscape of pre- and post- 9/11.

Musical director Tim Nijenhuis, along with percussionist Steve Foster, provide terrific live performances prior to and throughout the show. It begins with images featuring Bush and his cronies; this feels overly lengthy. A shorter montage would suffice to set the mood. The images used in other scenes helpfully add context.

‘MacBush’ features George W. Bush (Sean Emberley), Dick Cheney (Allan Merovitz), Donald Rumsfeld (Will Gillespie), Condoleezza Rice (Jamila B.), & Colin Powell (Jeremy Shand), as well as an American soldier (Gillespie), an Iraqi woman (Shavini Fernando Ranasinghe), and three ‘witches’ (Gillespie, Shand and Jon-Gordon Odegaard).

Sean Emberley is a stand out as ‘Bush.’ Offstage he’d never remind me of the former President, but he nails the voice facial expressions, and mannerisms of the man to a remarkable degree.

MacBush and its lyrics were written by novelist and screenwriter David Laing Dawson. Dawson was sitting a few seats away from me during the performance. He has said, “I think of the George W. Bush years as a tragedy, though the tragedy befell ordinary people and not the protagonist..”

Indeed, MacBush is most successful when it slows the pace and focuses on the casualties created by the Bush administration, including those among the Iraqi people, and of soldiers left with psychic and physical wounds. The emotional scenes with a shell-shocked American soldier (Gillespie) and an Iraqi woman (Fernando Ranasinghe) mourning her family are vulnerable and moving.

In the program, Director Ron Weihs says that the three witches of MacBush, “do not represent real historical figures… They are… gross caricatures,” but elsewhere, the trio are identified as ‘Osama,’ ‘Saddam’ and ‘Ahmadinejad.’ While Jon-Gordon Odegaard’s ‘Osama’ is little too manic, he is best at physically representing his character and I can’t fault his enthusiasm. As for ‘Saddam,’ we know it’s him mainly because of the beret Gillespie is wearing. And ‘Ahmadinejad’ Jeremy Shand lends a great deal of humanity to his ‘Colin Powell’; I’m sure he could give his witch something a bit more recognizable. The three provided cartoonish comic relief and elicited some chuckles from the audience.

I was pleased to see local singer Jamila B. (Rice) in this production. Her vocals are a treat. Unsurprisingly, she has great stage presence. Additionally, she not only has good comedic timing but is eerie in the closing moments when she evokes Lady Macbeth’s Out, damned spot!’ speech, in recognition of ‘Rice’s’ complicity.

As I watched, I returned again and again to the thought that they needed more space for what they wanted to do. Projection, live music, cast, props, layers of action, and audience: that’s a lot to accommodate, and I wondered what the production would look like if they could just spread out.

The seating area, already small, is farther constrained to give the cast space to maneuver. The cast uses the venue creatively, snaking its way through the room and around the audience at the beginning and end. However, Learie McNicolls’ choreography feels overcome by the lack of space. It’s amazing that the cast of seven performers, two musicians, and a projectionist were able to avoid bumping into one another, so McNicolls, director Ron Weihs, and designer Judith Sandiford deserve kudos for that. However, the tight quarters mean too much of the potential for grace and purpose in the choreography is lost; as McNicolls’ signature style is one of gorgeous and evocative movement, it’s a shame.

The Artbar has been a welcoming place in the Hamilton arts scene since 2009, and I love its vibe. MacBush is a fascinating premise for a play, let alone a musical. It’s a testament to. both that MacBush was sold out on the first two nights of its run, a Tuesday and Wednesday evening. As seating is limited, reserving tickets is advised.

#2. MacBush review by Gary Smith: Macbeth, Bush mashup has comic intentions with bite, The Hamilton Spectator, Tuesday May 3, 2016

Need some consciousness raising? Tired of Trump, Hillary and the crew dispensing “Ain’t America Great” on TV? Then go get a reality check at Artword Artbar, where Artword Theatre is offering hemlock and humour, stirred not shaken, in a bitter witches’ brew. That brew borrowed from Shakespeare makes George W. Bush a kind of Macbeth in a modern suit.

Playwright David Laing Dawson isn’t afraid of upsetting theatrical traditions and conventions. He’s got the balls to connect Shakespeare’s murderous Thane with the president who gave Florida a bad name.

The Macbeth connection isn’t original, of course. Shakespeare’s play was allied with an earlier president in Barbara Garson’s 1967 feminist play MacBird, which did something similar, much to Lyndon B. Johnson’s jowly rage.

Here, Dawson tackles the Bush gang with pouty Condi Rice (an attractive Jamila B.) leading the down-home hoedown as Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of the boys perform a grand chain of murder, mayhem and musical misadventure.

Now, it takes nerve to create a musical with such acrid, yet comic intentions. Fortunately Dawson has plenty of that. He’s aided and abetted in his attack by director Ronald Weihs and designer Judith Sandiford, folks who know how to rock such material, even if it does sometimes serve up trite rhyming couplets for lyrics and music by New Zealand composer Charles W. Humphreys that sounds like lounge songs fed through a synthesizer.

No matter, this stage musical has some disturbing truth to offer, even if we do see things from an almost exclusively anti-American point of view.

We never, for instance, see the Twin Towers coming down. And the Bush team always looks, well, bush league without real power or intellect.

British playwright David Hare tackled this whole subject superbly in “Stuff Happens,” but then he didn’t try to set Colin Powell’s befuddlement, Condi’s cool manipulation and Rumsfeld and Cheney’s Martin and Lewis routine to music.

And no, I don’t think you’re likely to see this musical performed on American soil. Its citizens don’t like to be thought of as murdering aggressors.

Dawson’s musical is well worth seeing, though obviously some things need a second look. The staging cries out for a faster pace. Tiny pauses between scenes and while we’re waiting for Tim Nijenhuis’s music to start reduce momentum. MacBush would also benefit from a 90-minute format, no intermission to break things up, even given those hard Artbar chairs.

The first act is the stronger of the two, with latter moments of the show needing tighter, tougher writing.

Sean Emberley stands out as a look-alike for the grinning George Bush. Jon-Gordon Odegaard makes an exotic Osama bin Laden. And Will Gillespie and Allan Merovitz have fun with the roles of Rumsfeld and Cheney. Shavini Fernando Ramasingh has some nice moments as an Iraqi Woman caught in the crossfire and Jeremy Shand is a stolid Colin Powell. Vocally things are sometimes rough, and Learie McNicolls’ choreography fights against Humphrey’s music.

There are some interesting songs. “Glory in a Uniform” and “Let’s Go To War” are emotional highs.

The big thing is, “MacBush The Musical” is a brave exploration of the kind of creative theatre that’s possible in this city. We need to support this kind of project, or forever be forced to watch “The Sound of Music” and “Annie.”

Gary Smith has written on theatre and dance for The Hamilton Spectator for more than 30 years.

#3. MacBush: the Musical – Toil, Trouble, Shock & Awe,
Review by Ellen S. Jaffe for Ontario Arts Review

Shakespeare may be dead, but his plays are alive, well, and adaptable to modern times. Hamilton author, David Laing Dawson, demonstrates this in his powerful MacBush: the Musical, directed by Ron Weihs.  The play transposes the story of MacBeth to Washington D.C. and Iraq. Mixing clever, biting political satire with direct anti-war statements, showing how power corrupts and evil proliferates, especially when done in the name of “good.”
Judith Sandiford’s effective design places the actors in front of projected photographs, from Bush and his cronies, to scenes of war and human devastation, to the aftermath of returning veterans.
Dawson comments, “I think of the George W. Bush years as a tragedy, though the tragedy befell ordinary people, not the protagonist.”  He wrote the script and lyrics and the music was composed by Charles W. Humphreys.  In this production, Tim Nijenhuis, musical director, performs brilliantly on the piano and keyboard, ably assisted by Steve Foster, on percussion. The music supports the action and provides bridges between scenes.  Learie McNicolls designed the choreography and movement – a complicated feat on a small stage.
The play opens with the three “witches” – portrayed by Will Gillespie, Jon-Gordon Odegaard, and Jeremy Shand/”Mr. J”– swirling onstage like flying dervishes in bright robes. Weihs notes, “In our play, the witches do not represent real historical figures. They are projections of the fantasies of George and his Republican cronies.”  As the witches predict, George Dubya – manipulated by Dickie (Dick Cheney), played with menacing intensity by Allan Merovitz – moves from golf course to Oval Office.  Sean Emberley plays George with a combination of privilege, boyishness, zeal, and terrifying ignorance.
Supported by Rumsfeld (also played by Gillespie), and Condoleezza Rice, beautifully acted and sung by Jamila B., George chooses “WAR” as the simplistic, patriotic solution to 9/11 and world complexity.  Condi’s wonderful song, “What Do I Think?” shows how she has been trained to study and please, but doesn’t know her own mind.  In the end, she supports Bush, but Colin Powell (also played by Shand) is reluctant to do so. He gives in, but finally resigns, after he has realized his mistakes. Shand’s portrayal of Powell’s conflicts is memorable. There is also a powerful juxtaposition of the chorus singing, “War is stupid”, as a protest against Bush and his cronies, as they carry weapons and praise warfare.
For this reviewer, an anti-war activist since Vietnam years, two highlights of the show are Shavini Fernando Ranasinghe’s portrayal of an Iraqi woman lamenting, “Once I had a family…I had a daughter, I had a son,” and Gillespie, as an ordinary soldier, chanting, “Help me un-see what I have seen, help me undo what I have done, help me un-live what I have lived.”
Ranasinghe, a talented young performer, also takes part in the chorus, as do Shand and Odegaard.  The play moves swiftly; the pace slows at the start of the second act but gains momentum in the banquet scene where George sees a ghost. The show ends with a reminder of Shakespeare’s words: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day…” Condi looks at her hands, as Lady MacBeth does, as she speaks the lines, “Out, damned spot! …. Will these hands never be clean?”  Good question.

MacBush; the Musical runs at Artword Artbar, 15 Colbourne St, Hamilton, through May 8.


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