Theatre Review:  The White House Murder Case

The White House Murder Case is unnervingly topical for a play that first saw the light of day in 1970. Set in 2020, it prophesies the outlandish concept of Americans fighting in a war on foreign soil, whilst having little or no idea of the reasons for the conflict.

Presented by Red Phoenix Theatre & Holden Street Theatres
Reviewed 10th August, 2017

It’s sick, it’s funny, and it’s unnervingly topical. In 1969, Jules Feiffer’s play examining the dehumanisation of cities,  Little Murders won him both an Outer Critics Circle Award and an OBIE. A year later, his next play, The White House Murder Case, got him yet another Outer Critics Circle Award.  The good folk of Red Phoenix Theatre, who choose to present plays which have not been performed in Adelaide before, give a game account of this absurdist political farce.

Just as Little Murders foretold the rise of Nixon’s so-called “silent majority”,  The White House Murder Case is unnervingly topical for a play that first saw the light of day in 1970.  Set in 2020, it prophesies the outlandish concept of Americans fighting in a war on foreign soil (in this instance, Brazil), whilst having little or no idea of the reasons for the conflict.  It also proposes a team (Postmaster General, Chief Scientist, Attorney General, Secretary of Defence, Head of the Armed Forces) who advise their President with so little regard for truth and so much concern for appearances, that the result is pure mendacious spin.  Who would have thought it?  Feiffer is a fearless satirist, piling absurdity on absurdity to add to the comedy.  And we find ourselves laughing about horrendous things.

Director Eddy Knight’s attempt to steer his cast through the complexities of absurdist farce has largely succeeded. Wayne Anthoney’s rich history of physical theatre work pays off. His Secretary of Defence is stooped, cadaverous, querulous, comically lugubrious and never mere caricature. As Attorney General, Tony Busch is oily sycophancy itself.  Sporting a stars’n’stripes bow tie, Josh Coldwell, as Professor Sweeney, Chief Scientist, offers “I’m in Research and Development!” as excuse for all his actions, including the accidental slaughter of hundreds of American soldiers resulting from the injudicious deployment of his latest nerve gas. Gary George brings a touch of Grand Guignol with his robust portrayal of wounded warrior General Pratt.  (And yes, just as in “Pilgrim’s Progress”, the surname means something!) As a weaselling functionary who secretly covets the top job, Brant Eustice, in a vile beige cardigan, is impeccably bad. (That’s high praise indeed.)  President Hale himself is Tim Williams, whose frowning brow radiates worry. Completing the main-stage characters is Anita Zamberlan Canala, as the First Lady, President Hale’s wife.  She’s well to the left of her husband’s politics in many ways, and is quick to let him know it.  This gets her in trouble. Zamberlan Canala’s plays her as strong-minded and crisp.

To the left of the stage is an ill-defined terrain covered in camouflage netting. It represents a battlefield in Brazil. Action switches between the White House Oval Office (stage right) and the battlefield (stage left) where American soldiers are steadily succumbing to the euphoric yet terminal effects of that accidentally-released toxin.  A soldier (Robert Bell) and a CIA agent (Matt Houston) meet, oppose and then aid each other as they become more disabled by the gas. These two literally deconstruct, and as extremities drop off, roll away, and take on a life of their own, we shift between Doctor Strangelove and Monty Python. And we laugh – for all the wrong reasons.  It’s a hallmark of Feiffer’s satiric wit, and both Bell and Houston sustained their tasks admirably.

As fast and as funny as this show is, mordant wit is at its heart. Both Eustice and Anthoney already drive their performances with deft speed and just the right sense of Feiffer’s unique style. Get to see this soon. Over the short run of this show, I predict that all the cast will kick this gloriously entertaining piece into manic gear and the good citizens of Hindmarsh will be complaining about noise levels caused by the resultant mirth.

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Venue:  Holden Street Theatres – The Studio
Season: 10th – 19th August, 2017
Duration:  1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets:  Full Price: $22:75 Concession$15:75


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