Theater Review: Politics Drive a Whimsical ‘Odyssey’

Why vote? 2004: An Election Year Odyssey, an original one-act play performed this past weekend in the Adams House Pool Theater, attempted to answer this question with a Dickens’ Christmas Carol-like pastiche of history lessons, reworked Broadway show tunes, forced rhymes, and both good and bad jokes.

The show, sponsored by Show Up For Democracy, had an obvious ulterior motive: convincing the audience to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Charlie I. Miller ’08, director and co-author, relied heavily on his cast’s willingness to make fools of themselves and the audience’s willingness to let them. But the obvious good intentions of the play combined with a few bright comic moments to make the show a success.

The Odyssey begins with a modern activist, Laura J. Arandes ’05, arguing with David, politically apathetic fellow student, Jeremiah P. Hendren ’08, who just wants to make it to history class on time. David doesn’t understand how politics applies to his life, he doesn’t want to sort through confusing political propaganda and he doesn’t think his one vote will matter.

In response to these ubiquitous concerns, what else could be expected but a brightly-clad, crazy-haired genie, the ghost of Christmas past—I mean, of American history—popping out of the floor and supervising a musical adventure starring key figures in American history.

The history lesson details the long process of winning universal suffrage. We watch a motley crew of Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress, after which two self-satisfied white landowners in paper hats dance around chanting “No girls allowed! No blacks allowed!...It’s a good thing the word racist hasn’t been invented yet!” Next come Jim Crowe laws, the Seneca Falls Convention and finally the Vietnam war protests that eventually resulted in lowering the voting age to match the age for draft eligibility with the 26th Amendment in 1971.

This handy little history lesson has its moments. Silas P. Howland ’08 played his various roles—soldier, can-can girl, and George W. Bush spoof Buzzy Polk—with a relaxed slapstick style that the audience responded to, harmonizing with a script that didn’t take itself too seriously. Though at times the actors came across as uncomfortable with this lack of seriousness (the history genie was subject to some tense over-acting), everyone had their moments, so that at worst the audience response came out as an even mix of laughter and groans.

Despite its important role in American history, however, the scene in which two wounded soldiers sing a homesick “Santa Clause Is Coming To Town” in an attempt to portray the horrors of Vietnam might just as well have been left out, given its incongruity with the overall tone of the play and the difficulty of doing justice to that subject matter.

Throughout the history lesson, David voices the angry helplessness and sense of disconnect from the “real world” to which would-be student voters can be susceptible. By the end of the play he is convinced to vote in the upcoming election by slogans like “Vote because so many people have died to win this right for you,” “Vote for democracy,” and “Vote because you can.” But it’s hard to say whether the basis of these appeals is more logical than emotional, and certainly in the end Odyssey doesn’t make an airtight case for one individual to vote.

That’s not necessarily a failure on the part of the play, however. While it is important to remember the historical processes that have gotten us to today’s democracy, it is just as valid to question government systems that can make a citizen feel powerless and then apathetic. It would seem that Odyssey achieved at least one of its goals: generating discussion. Quite a few departing audience members, myself included, were rehashing David’s questions as we left the theater, debating the possibilities and effectiveness of political involvement. And yes, I’ll be voting.