Politics as an extension of reality television isn't so farfetched. That's part of the premise of Ugly People, an interactive comedy by Fort Worth playwright James Venhaus that opens October 18 at the 100-seat Pantagleize Theatre.
Two candidates -- Scott, a sincere politician trying to do right by his community, and Rob, winner of the reality show So You Think You Can Govern? -- run for local, state and, finally, national office. The differences between the candidates seem clear; then comes a personal scandal that threatens to ruin one, while changing attitudes toward the other. Late in the play, the men debate, taking questions from the audience, town-hall style. The audience casts votes that determine which of two ways the play will end. During intermission, patrons can even buy extra ballots for a dollar apiece and "lobby in the lobby," as Venhaus describes it, to boost support for their favorite guy.
Just named "best original script" from last season by San Antonio's Alamo Theatre Arts Council, Ugly People is Venhaus' satiric revenge on the current ugliness in political rhetoric.
"I was pretty angry after the election in 2008 and the midterm elections in 2010," says the playwright. "The 24-hour news cycles, how we play politics today in the media - it's OK to lie, to make stuff up. Dirty politics is nothing new, but we're just divorcing ourselves from reality now."
The play's title comes from the old maxim that "politics is show business for ugly people." The inclusion of a personal scandal for one of the characters reflects the public reaction to, and subsequent forgiveness of Bill Clinton. "You can forgive personal mistakes like Clinton's," says Venhaus. "You don't ever forgive the doofus for being a doofus, which is how I felt about George W. Bush."
As he was writing the play, he says, he could barely keep up with the ridiculous things real candidates in the current presidential race were doing. "Several things I wrote ended up happening in real life. I had the character Rob coming out publically and announcing a prayer chain in Texas Stadium. Two weeks later, Rick Perry announced his prayer vigil at Reliant Stadium in Houston. You don't have to push reality too far to make it satire right now. Real candidates continue to push to more ridiculous levels."
Now teaching acting, directing and playwriting at All Saints Episcopal School in Fort Worth, Venhaus, 44 and the father of two, says what worries him most as a teacher, parent and citizen is the demonizing of intelligence.
"We've become anti-intellectual in this country. The tipping point was when it was considered a good thing when Bush was leading polls as the guy people wanted have a beer with. Hey, I want the guy in the White House to be smarter than me. The guy in the White House should be smart. But there's a growing segment of population that is threatened by that. I don't get it. Sarah Palin is just the epitome of the new era of politics that makes me furious. Don't go to school and learn stuff and do good for your community, but quit the job as governor, get 4 million followers on Twitter and get a reality show and you could be the next president."
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With each staging of Ugly People, Venhaus updates it a bit. For the Pantagleize production, directed by Kami Rogers and starring George X. Rodriguez and Pat Dohoney, he's written new dialogue inspired by the recent statement about "legitimate rape" by Republican Congressman Todd Akin. An empty chair might also make an appearance.
Ugly People opens in previews at 8 p.m., Thursday, October 18. Opening night, October 19, includes a post-show talkback with the playwright. Runs at 8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday; 3 p.m., Sunday through October 28. Pantagleize Theatre, 1115 West Rio Grande, Fort Worth. For tickets, $13-$20, call 817-810-0850.
Ugly People's Rob Maxwell for State Senate ad