Dallas — Could there be anything more appropriate for these times than Rush Limbaugh in blackface playing Othello while he pines for a ‘60s feminist left-wing radical on the run from the FBI? Of course, it can’t be true. She’s far too old for Rush.
Such is the insanity of Rush Limbaugh in Night School as part of Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center. As directed by Jeff Swearingen, the Fun House Theatre and Film actors, all 17 and under, tackle Charlie Varon’s wild satire with glee. The original length is trimmed to fit the time slot, which leads to some rushing of lines, but also compresses the farcical shenanigans to a gasp-inducing climax.
The complex tale of Limbaugh’s imagined downfall presents as a mocumentary with a narrator, Rogers Johnson. (What’s satire without a penis joke?) Doak Campbell Rapp, age 17, plays him with slightly piteous superiority, rather than Varon’s more affable original incarnation. It’s a dense and arduous role that demands the actor to memorize and dispense voluminous narration while maintaining audience engagement and keeping track of three other actors playing multiple roles. It’s a theatrical juggling act. Rapp fulfills like a virtuoso.
Limbaugh, cleverly played by Alex Duva, 12, revels in the 60-million radio-show listeners who slaver over his crude yet witty insults as the ‘90s right wing’s attack dog. But his manager Barry Granatour—in one of many roles enlivened with bemused wit by Christos Kaiafas, 13—brings bad news. Limbaugh’s numbers are starting to fall due to a new competitor who is (gasp!) Hispanic and, frankly, more fun.
What choice does Rush have but to learn Spanish? Limbaugh disguises himself as what no one would recognize him as: a liberal hippie. He heads to night school under the name Russell Lindbergh (get it, get it?). Somehow a Ben & Jerry’s t-shirt and fake matador mustache mask all that righteous bluster. But while undercover, Rush is freed from his entourage of sycophants, leaving him alone with his feelings. Dangerous territory. True to life, Rush’s libido is his downfall. At school, he falls for the alluring feminist Nina Eggly, fabulously played by Joseph Nativi, 13.
With Duva holding down the titular lead, the other three actors tackle over a dozen characters. Nativi has the great energy of a Second City-type performer, able to lose himself in the most ludicrous of characters while loving them and poking ever so slight fun at the same time. At one point, Kaiafas enacts a half-dozen class members in little more than a minute. Rapp creates a hilarious musical number using only his cheeks.
From there the satirical plot thickens with improbable circumstances, madcap ventures, and mischievous shenanigans. It all comes to a head at a New York Shakespeare Festival production of Othello directed by Spalding Gray (played by a superb Nativi) with a conflicted-in-love Limbaugh in the title role. Encounters of Spalding trying to direct the literalist Limbaugh are priceless missings of the minds.
Ben & Jerry’s as the tasty emblem of liberal goofiness threads the play. There are weird tangents into millennial academia and an escape attempt to Denmark. Frida Kahlo (Kaiafas in another truly funny female role) as a feminist professor and NPR’s Cokie Roberts both make appearances. It’s all mixed up with the performance artist Homo Luddens, riotously played by Rapp in Pokémon pasties.
As a play, Night School is campy, convoluted, absurd, emotionally subversive, and excessively creative— a tearfully funny free-for-all. Brilliant layered and woven writing from Varon with bon mots and zingers galore. Sharp points are wrought merely from names (go ahead, Google “Homo Ludens”). The Fun House cast extracts plentiful laughs. With their improvisational comedy training, they bring to life the ridiculous finale with "volunteers" recruited from the audience. It lit up the crowd on Friday night. Their abundant slapstick is seamless, even better than the original staging—a sure Swearingen touch.
Rush’s appeal was being dangerously likely to say anything. Duva has the anger down pat, and the bluster will bloom with confidence, but that teetering on the edge doesn’t come through. If only you could tell a 12-year-old actor how Rush was ripped out of his mind on Oxycontin for most of that show—just let those loose lips fly. The real Limbaugh’s body is as blustery as his personality.
Rather unnerving for Fun House to be the opening show of a three-week festival. Some lines were stammered or stumbled over, but small matter when the laughs just keep on coming. Overall, Night School is an enthusiastically received FIT debut for Fun House.
» See more info about the 2016 Festival of Independent Theatres in our special section here, where you can also learn how to download our FIT app. In that app, you'll see a section for the playbills for each company, which includes cast, creative and director's notes.
» Read our interview with Alex Duva and Jeff Swearingen
Rush Limbaugh in Night School is performed in the following blocks:
- 5pm Sunday, July 10
- 2pm Saturday, July 16
- 5pm Saturday, July 23
- 8pm Friday, July 29