Timbuktu, USA

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday August 27, 2018

Veronica Anastasio Wiseman, Mattie McMaster, and Jason Karos in 'Timbuktu USA' continuing through September 2 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre.
Veronica Anastasio Wiseman, Mattie McMaster, and Jason Karos in 'Timbuktu USA' continuing through September 2 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre.  (Source:David Marshall)

Sleeping Weazel's brief has always been to bring provocative, challenging, and unique theater to Boston. They succeed in spades with "Timbuktu, USA" a farce that flies right over the top and leaves you clutching your sides and scratching your head.

At first, "Timbuktu USA" seems like it might be headed for some of the parody of the 2016 elections. Secretary of State Kelly (Veronica Asatasio Wiseman) is at a point in her career where she knows she will never be elected to the presidency, thanks in large part of the country's deep-dyed sexism. Her reputation as a virginal spinster doesn't help on this score, but is she really so virginal after all? Kelly's constant companion is a monkey named Bubu (Jason Karos), also known as "Timbuktu," since this is where he's purportedly come from. There's something not quite right about Kelly's attachment to Bubu, and, as we come to discover, there's more to Bubu's origins than mere legerdemain when it comes to laws around the importation of exotic animals.

About two decades earlier, Secretary Kelly was a serious contender for the presidential nomination. Her chief rival was the handsome, swaggering General Bane (Michael Hammond), a man set on two goals: The Oval Office, and Kelly's hand in marriage. In flashback, the two play out volatile scenes of attraction, domination, and lethal violence. They embody the "lust" that Bubu symbolizes, a lust that is ascendant in politics as in every other aspect of the contemporary world.

That lust affects everyone from Secretary Kelly's pansexual gardener (also played by Hammond) to her fussy aides (Brittany Baltay and Riley Fox Hillyer) to her gay. and wildly promiscuous, nephew, Bobby (Ramzi Kaiss), a young man Secretary Kelly is methodically, and ruthlessly, grooming to take the highest office in the land - the office she herself has been denied. But in order to further Bobby's career and her own ambitions, Secretary Kelly must secure him a wife. Who better than Babette (Mattie McMaster), the daughter of a prominent senator (Luis Astudillo)?

Top row (l-r): Jason Karos, Mattie McMaster, Ramzi Kaiss, Luis Astudillo Bottom row (l-r): Veronica Anastasio Wiseman, Riley Fox Hillyer, Brittany Baltay
Top row (l-r): Jason Karos, Mattie McMaster, Ramzi Kaiss, Luis Astudillo Bottom row (l-r): Veronica Anastasio Wiseman, Riley Fox Hillyer, Brittany Baltay  (Source: David Marshall)

The sticking point is that Babette is the one person not overwhelmed by the all-consuming lust (for power, for status, for sex) that has to thoroughly compromise everyone else. Babette has a natural disinclination to be associated with anything hollow, fake, or unworthy. She also has a longstanding fascination with Bubu, and an insider's knowledge of certain fatal, and politically dangerous, events from long ago. But Babette is also the key to resolving numerous issues in addition to Bobby's impending media disgrace, which involves a scandal centered around his conquests of fellow military men. Secretary Kelly, possessed by the very glory-seeking spirit that she believes once transformed Bubu from a man into a monkey, hatches her plans - and she won't be stopped.

Playwright Kenneth Prestininzi sets out the story, and sets up expectations, with an eye to departing from anything resembling typical plotting contours and exploding the audience's guesswork. Samantha Butler's scenic design tellingly places a lush urban garden just beyond the doors of a posh interior space, the sort of space where politics of all sorts (sexual, economic, international) are forged. The cast throws themselves into the material without reservation, channeling all manner of things beastly and untoward, and their gusto carries the work across chasms of confoundment. Ancient curses, nighttime visitations that might be either supernatural or merely nightmares and a twist that upends everything: What the hell is going on? Who knows? The cast, Wiseman and McMaster in particular, keep you on your toes even as the story wings off above your head.

The play's metaphorical elements might be a muddle but its comic energy is irrepressible. It's also got unstinting momentum: At an hour and a half, and under Prestininzi's direction of his own material, this production is a fast-forward plummet into a maelstrom of political satire that ravenously extends to calling out, and dressing down, nothing less than human nature (and its animal antecedents, still deeply present in everything we, as a species, undertake). This is the reason, one supposes, for the show's subtitle: "A hungry and ridiculous play about political naivete." There's a whole lot of thirst mixed in with that hunger, and if you hear echoes of "Les liaisons dangereuses' in amidst those monkey howls, you also hear the mythic and timeless laughter of old-school gods; the Greek and Roman pantheons, specifically, whose own sexual politics were freighted with lusts as mundane as they were supernal.

"Timbuktu USA" continues through September 2 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.sleepingweazel.com/upcoming-events/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.