Lyric's "Red Hot Patriot": Bushwhackin' the Shrub

Karen MacDonald and the Shrub in "Red Hot Patriot"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Journalist Molly Ivins was the proverbial thorn in the (back)side of many a Texas politician, with her keen eye for hypocrisy, and her acerbic wit. Her knack for satire forms the basis of the current production at Lyric Stage, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins”. Written by Margaret and Allison Engel, no strangers themselves to journalism, it’s a fond tribute to the late essayist. Ivins may not be as well known hereabouts as she was in her home state, but her work eventually found a national audience. She attended Smith College and the Institute of Political Science in Paris, and earned a Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia University; subsequently she wrote for the Houston Chronicle, the Minneapolis Tribune, her own Texas Observer, and the New York Times (an anomaly at a time when testosterone was virtually a requirement), having authored or co-authored a dozen or so political books and having been nominated for a Pulitzer in Journalism. Over the years she accumulated a dedicated (mostly liberal) following, ultimately blossoming when Texas governor George W. Bush (whom she christened “the Shrub”) was elected President.

As directed here by Courtney O’Connor (whose Lyric Stage credits include “Rich Girl” and “Stones in His Pockets”), the audience is in luck. It’s essentially a one-woman show, thus requiring a savvy actress who can singlehandedly hold an audience captive for an hour and a quarter without a break. (There is a non-speaking supporting role, identified as “Helper”, played by Jacob Athyal, who coincidentally also performed a mostly mute role in Underground Railway’s “A Disappearing Number”). Fortunately, in Karen MacDonald (whose numerous credits include understudying and performing the role of Amanda Wingfield in “Glass Menagerie” on Broadway), we have an accomplished performer who could probably excel at reading from a telephone book. Even seemingly battling a cold, MacDonald, arguably incapable of being less than transcendent, again delivers an amazingly kick-ass performance.

The show itself (one hesitates to call it a play in any traditional sense) may or may not be to a theatregoer’s liking. Most of the audience, this critic included, would certainly have counted themselves among her “beloveds”, as she addressed her readers; in that sense, the work is probably preaching to the choir, as the saying goes. Some of her own sayings are a bit colorful, which one might expect of a red hot patriot who named her dog Shit, referred to editors as “mice in training to become rats”, utilized the phrase “it’s as obvious as the balls on a tall dog” and referred to a communal chicken de-feathering as a “gang pluck”. Some of her witticisms aren’t all that original (such as debunking those “thousand points of light” as more like one “dim bulb”), but most often her aim is original and right on target. She even had the last laugh: when she died in 2007 after a long fight with breast cancer, she left the bulk of her estate to the ACLU. Only once in the show does she admit to being “out of touch with (her) emotions”. She saved her space for warning her followers to “pay attention the next time (she) warns them not to elect another Bush president”. Timely advice indeed.

The technical credits, at the usual fine level of Lyric Stage productions, all contribute to the intimate feeling of the work, from the Scenic Design by Katharine Burkhart to the Costume Design by Sarie Gessner, Lighting Design by Chris Brusberg, Projection Design by Johnathan Carr, and Sound Design by Chris Kurtz.

As Ivins herself put it, “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed toward the powerless, it is not only cruel-it’s vulgar”.
Since she considered that her monument would consist of future freedom fighters, this production becomes a part of her legacy. If you’re part of that choir to whom she preached, you have to see this devastatingly witty depiction. And as she further urged us, don’t ask the proverbial question of her day, “What would Molly say?”; we should instead be responding to the question, “What do you say?”

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