Red-Hot Patriot: the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins
Starring Tina Packer
Shakespeare & Company Lenox, MA
Through September 4, 2011
Review of Show of August 17, 2011
If you go online and search for reviews of Tina Packer’s one-woman show on deceased liberal icon Molly Ivins (1944-2007), you’ll be inundated by praise. Here’s the conversation that Packer’s performance sparked among the four of us who saw Red-Hot Patriot on August 17: Is tepid criticism harming theater by luring people to bad shows? I come down firmly on the side that says we need to return to the days in which a passel of bad (but honest) reviews can close a show overnight. Make no mistake about it: Packer’s performance was dreadful--the sort of bad that makes a person reluctant to shell out for future unknown productions.
First a disclaimer: I met the late Molly Ivins and heard her speak on two occasions. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen loosely, I casually met Molly Ivins and Tina Packer is no Molly Ivins. There were a few zingers in the script--and how could there not be when drawing upon one of the wittiest journalists in recent memory--but Packer’s delivery was wooden, her comedic timing flat, and her attempt at a Texan accent risible. Indeed, Ms. Packer hails from Wolverhampton, England, and is known for her prowess with Shakespeare. Maybe Shakespearean actors think they can do anything, but I can tell you that most high school actresses would have made a better Texan than Packer. In fact, amateurish is term I would apply to describe her attempt. You’ll come away thinking that Packer confused Houston with Euston, a railway station in London. (She also forgot her lines on four separate occasions and had to be prompted loudly from the wings. This too raises questions about her preparation, though I’m slightly more inclined to forgive these slips as she’s also doing a massive women and Shakespeare production.)
It’s a damn shame the show is lame because Molly Ivins was an earthier (sometimes cruder) version of Dorothy Parker, the sort of person who could piss you off with such panache that, like George W. Bush (whom she dubbed Shrub), her worst enemies were often charmed by her. We don’t get much sense of that in Red-Hot Patriot. You can see Packer trying to be earnest, and that’s part of the problem. She’s trying to work Ivins instead of presenting her and her lines come off as labored and forced, whereas Ivins was so natural and spontaneous that she often got into trouble by not filtering herself. A single example to illustrate the difference between the contrived and the natural: Packer performed a story Ivins often told of a friend who, as a boy, was started out of his wits by a harmless snake. The punch line and moral of the tale is, “Sometimes we’re so scared of something harmless that we hurt ourselves.” I’ve heard Ivins tell that tale and she delivered the final line with a gentle, but bemused delivery that said, in essence, “And you know what I mean, nod, wink, nod…” Packer’s retelling was loud, histrionic, and unaffecting.
Even the script could use work, which is surprising given that it includes so many of Ivins’s own words. There’s lots of angst about being--as Ivins described herself--a “freedom fighter,” we’re led to believe her passion was compensation for a damaged psyche. The character speaks of moral outrage, but it’s implied that much of it is rooted in Ivins’s torment over being raised by an authoritarian father, her desire to be one of the boys, and alcohol abuse. As Ivins might have said, “Pigshit!” Yes, she had her personal demons, but spare us the psych 101 analysis. And while I’m on the subject of the script, it’s not exactly “research” to find some of the play’s best lines on Ivins’s Wikipedia entry.
This play ran just 90 minutes, but it seemed longer. It ended to smatterings of polite applause, but the most enthusiastic person to walk out of the building all evening was the young house manager who introduced the show. My advice? Get thee to a bookstore and read Ivins’s wit for yourself. You can buy several of her books for the price of a theater ticket and the money would be better spent. Red-Hot Patriot is simply bad theater. A critic once remarked that when Molly Ivins wrote, “there ha[d] to be a jalapeno in every line.” Alas, Red-Hot Patriot tastes more like red Jell-O.