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Daisy's Madhouse Plays Politics with November

Local troupe tackles David Mamet's hit political play

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At one end of the Idaho Outdoor Association Grange Hall actor Sean Small sits at a school desk, surrounded by a series of false walls that represent the Oval Office of the White House. Small is rapidly toggling his attention back and forth between a mock-phone call with his wife about reupholstering a sofa and his companion's insistence that he should probably get off the phone because Iran has launched a nuclear strike against the United States.

But his mock-wife doesn't want to hear it.

"I'm not being cheap," Small grimaces. "I'm trying to save money because we're going home broke and we're being bombed by Iran so I have to hang up."

For most sitting presidents, this sort of inappropriately timed conversation wouldn't be an issue. But President Charles Smith in David Mamet's November isn't exactly ... well, "presidential."

"He is incredibly complex in that he's one of the biggest, most-idiotic boobs I've ever had the opportunity to play," Small said.

Small is a member of local theater company Daisy's Madhouse. And in the middle of arguably the most-toxic political climate in decades, Daisy's Madhouse is doing the unthinkable: putting politics on stage as lighthearted entertainment.

But the show's director, Karl Johnson, said November is the sort of show that will serve as a timely respite from the bitterness of the election rather than ratcheting the tension up another notch. The last thing the company wants is a fistfight breaking out in the parking lot.

"No matter who you support for president, you'll find something to hate in President Smith," Johnson said with a smile.

The show, which premiered on Broadway in 2008, tells the story of a comically unpopular president heading into election season and his desperate attempt to win re-election by blackmailing turkey farmers.

While Aaron Sorkin, the man behind The West Wing, said that his series engaged in the time-honored tradition of telling stories about kings in their castles, November depicts the castle as ruled by the court jester.

"What is it people don't like about me?" Smith asks his adviser.

"That you're still here," he fires back.

"If I have to suffer through this, then why should the gays get off scot-free," Smith opines in favor of same-sex marriage.

He even posits that building a fence to keep out illegal immigrants is impossible because it would have to be built by those very same illegal immigrants.

Penned by the "master of dialog," Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Mamet, November is rife with blistering diatribes, racial slurs and no shortage of profanity.

"Don't fear the f-word," Small advises potential attendees.

But despite its potty-mouthed racism and homophobia, November has far more levity than other Mamet plays like Oleanna, Glengarry Glen Ross or Edmond. It is a rollicking parade of absurdity. New York Times critic Ben Brantley even called November "a David Mamet play for people who don't like David Mamet."

Mamet's razor-sharp dialog, which snaps like a Jets vs. Sharks dance battle, is in large part what attracted Johnson to the show.

"I like its directness," he said. "The classical theater, the [Eugene] O'Neill, that kind of stuff, has been analyzed so much that you feel like you have to analyze it. This is right there, it's in your face, it says what it has to say. You understand it. You don't have to agree with it, but you understand it. There's no need for deep analysis."

But considering the season, it is difficult not to offer some. For Johnson, the absurdity the play is depicting is the product of too much money in elections, which has increased dramatically since the play's premiere with the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

"We still count votes, but the votes are outright bought," Johnson said.

But he is adamant that this is--strange as it may sound--not a political play. It's just one written from what Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones called "an advanced state of creative anarchy." Jones said that even as audiences howl with laughter at Mamet's verbal gags, it isn't clear where they are aimed, just that it is freeing for them to be lobbed in the first place.

It's often said that politics are not much more than theater. Considering the wide variety of real-world consequences arising from politics, that is a wildly cynical inaccuracy. But in the case of November, politics definitely make for good theater, and theater that doesn't have to be about a larger message.

"I don't care what the message is, the purpose of theater is to entertain," Johnson said. "And if it doesn't do that first, it's failed. [November] is a very entertaining piece."

But Small thinks there might be a message, though it isn't a partisan one by nature.

"If you're remotely interested in what's happening in our country right now, this is a true commentary on the state of our union right now," he said. "And it's a good laugh."

When asked if there was anything else he wanted to add, Small suddenly snapped back into character.

"No comment," he smirked.

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