Tina Packer Falls Flat as Molly Ivins

Go for the real deal (left) and skip the poor substitute.

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.


Tea Party: Trolls, Not Hobbits

Trolls with funny hats!

Remember the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire?” To refresh memories, it was a litany of the world’s woes and wrongs, but also a reminder that the fires were “already burning.” Joel went on to say, “No, we didn’t light it/But we tried to fight it.”

Why the trip down Memory Lane? Because some times we do know whom the arsonists are. I nearly keeled over laughing at the news that Tea Party activists were upset with--of all people--John McCain! Even Old Brimstone himself has his limits, and he called out the Tea Party for being irresponsible. (Imagine!). More to the point, he called them “hobbits,” presumably implying that they were people of small (public) stature with small minds and small ideals to match. Tea Party activists were angered, shocked, and hurt by McCain’s comments.

Which cliché best applies here? How about: If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen. When was that last time the Tea Party said a single positive thing about America, its leaders, or anyone to the left of Adolph Eichmann? Aren’t these the people who put a “target” on Representative Giffords’ office? Wasn’t it Representative Lamar Smith of Texas who said that liberals are more dangerous than terrorists? Gee, I thought maybe it might be a tad more dangerous to follow the advice of Representative Michael Burgess (Texas again), who said that he wanted to “tie up” the government by bringing impeachment proceedings against President Obama.

Or how about this one: People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The Tea Party is upset because McCain called them hobbits! Good grief!!! These are people who wear t-shirts with Obama’s features exaggerated and captions saying “Beware of dog.” They also routinely call him a “monkey” and rallies are replete with signs using the “N” word. (Small-minded? A lot of photos show they can’t even spell; “niggar” is a favored sign.)

You bet the anti-Tea Party rhetoric is harsh, which brings me back to Billy Joel. We didn’t start the fire--the Tea Party did. Its behavior is that of the classic bully: throw your weight around until someone bigger (and smarter) shows up to put you in your place. Then cry and claim you’re being picked on. I’m in a no-compromise mood. I see absolutely no reason to respect these clowns or give a damn about their poor little hurt feelings.

I’m sorry that McCain called them “hobbits,” because hobbits are noble and lovable. Tea Partiers are not hobbits; they’re vicious little trolls. They are also anti-American, anti-freedom, and post-sanity. They started the fire; I hope it consumes them and leaves only ash.