Tiny Kushner is a calculatedly droll name for an evening of mini-dramas by Tony Kushner. Brevity is not a virtue we tend to associate with the author of the epic Angels in America. But Tony Taccone – Kushner's long-time collaborator and the director of this vibrant, expertly performed Guthrie Theatre/ Berkeley Rep import – makes a shrewd point in the programme when he says: "I always think of him as a 200-year-old rabbi who's trying to write really good sketch comedy about the universe."
Radical politics and erudite, high-camp fancifulness inform these five short but imaginatively outsize works. As in Angels, invented characters, supernatural beings and real-life figures are brought into bizarre confrontations. Three of the pieces are set in a weird afterlife. Doomed to provide therapy through eternity, Richard Nixon's shrink is reduced to a nervous wreck who has started to confuse the ex-President with Hitler. In a loony, posthumous encounter on the moon, Kate Eifrig's hilariously sour Queen of Albania, an embittered fascist exile, squares up to her ideological opposite, the semi-delusional, relentlessly optimistic American entertainer Lucia Pamela, who happened to die in the same year.
In East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis the engaging Jim Lichtscheidl impersonates a hugely diverse cast of characters in a wittily clued-up account of an outrageous real-life tax-evasion scam. It was devised by the unsavoury chief of the North American White Man's Freedom and Liberty Association, and participants tried to pass themselves off as legally non-existent and hence exempt from taxation. Was this the little guy striking a blow against big government, or pure anti-social selfishness? The play remains amusingly equivocal.
More profound ambivalence lies at the heart of Terminating, the subtlest piece, in which a conflicted gay client imagines he's in love with his lesbian analyst who (because of her own private, childless despair) has just ended their sessions. The sparring partners are offered counsel by their respective same-sex lovers. Verbally extravagant and full of one-liners that nail the tortuous psychology, the play pushes through its savage scenario to a touching wisdom about the freeing nature of self-sacrifice.
Ms Eifrig is magnificent in the haunting, climactic play in which Laura Bush, then First Lady, travels to paradise to read The Brothers Karamazov to a trio of Iraqi children who perished because of American aggression. The premise is uncomfortable; the moral (that killing children is wrong) incontestable. But Kushner turns potential queasiness to dramatic advantage. We watch Mrs Bush's gracious smile congeal to a stricken stare as a guardian angel relays the tragic facts. The resulting conflict between her official mission (to reassure the children that their deaths were necessary for the cause of freedom) and her deepening intuitions (that Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor and Dick Cheney have much in common, say) creates a painfully moving, speculative portrait of a decent, divided soul.
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