Tail! Spin! is quite the appropriate beginning to Trustus Theatre’s 32nd season. Smart, raunchy, irreverent, and curious, it takes the audience’s incessant interest in the current political season and steers it into the recent past to take stock of the peculiar sexual preoccupations and peccadillos that seem to come along with politics.
The play, written (or assembled?) by Mario Correa, uses exclusively previous statements, interviews, dialogue, and social media content to tell the stories of the sex scandals of four politicians: Idaho Senator Larry Craig, who was caught soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom; New York Representative (and failed NYC mayoral candidate) Anthony Weiner, who has a sexting addiction; Florida House Representative Mark Foley, who had inappropriate relationships with many underage male pages; and our own South Carolina Governor (and current House Representative) Mark Sanford, who handled a dopey extra-marital affair in the most clumsy way possible.
The premise is a challenging one, particularly given that just five actors (and only one woman) are tasked with bringing to life these rapid-fire, often fragmented narratives to life without sacrificing any comic timing, but Trustus, as usual, shines. Although a more-barebones and unadventurous set and sound design than is typical for the theatre, the acting and directing here is top-notch, elevating itself clearly above the world of SNL sketches and late night show fodder with which it shares similar DNA in its witty and puerile subject matter. Stann Gwynn delivers a note-perfect, awkwardly fastidious Larry Craig alongside Kevin Bush as the undercover agent who arrests him and Ellen Rodillo-Fowler as his hilariously in-denial wife. Both Bush and Rodillo-Fowler end up being MVPs throughout, darting through such a dizzying array of roles that makes the play double as an acting showcase. Bush’s nuanced, complex take on Mark Foley, the lone sinning politician which inspires some sympathy here, is perhaps the best moment, and the fact that he couples it with scene-stealing imitations of Stephen Colbert and the South Carolina State House Speaker is fairly incredible.
For her part, Rodillo-Fowler has to tackle every single female role in the piece, often leading to her having to literally interview herself as both Barbara Walter and Jenny Sanford (her Walters impression is priceless). While she delivers a remarkably graceful performance given the circumstances (there were a couple of moments where clarity suffered, although the writing seems the most likely culprit), the fact that the play doesn’t add a second female actor is either an intentional nod to the relative absence of women in politics or a reification of the boys club-default that exists in both political and comedic worlds. Either way, it would have been nice for her to have some help.
Joseph Eisenreich as Anthony Weiner and Clint Poston as Mark Sanford also perform nicely as both main characters and reliable sidemen—Eisenreich in particular comes in handy as he moves from the lascivious braggadocio of Weiner to the innocent adolescent that Bush’s Foley is obsessed with. Neither plays their main parts to type—Eisenreich is more All-American boyish in the Marco Rubio mold than the wiry, nervy real-life Weiner, while Poston plays Sanford with every bit of the principled conviction and quaint narcissism of our former governor, but without the aw-shucks bizarreness that characterized many of his even less-famous press appearances.
Director Jason Stokes, along with his top-rate cast, deserve credit for honing the fragmented give-and-take nature of this challenging script into clear punch lines and playfully subversive juxtapositions. You could see the play falling apart if performed by a lesser crew, instead of delivering two hours of solid laughs.
As far as any larger meaning or political statement, I’m not sure if I quite see one beyond the fact that it’s our current, sexually-charged and politically-saturated media culture that makes this collage-like production possible, and that the hypocritical positions that we demand (or that politicians demand of themselves?) is a historical reality that gets endlessly repeated.
The bottom line, though, is that if the all-too-painful comedic reality of the current Presidential race has you down, Tail! Spin! serves as a reminder that absurdity is par for the course for our political landscape, and we might as well laugh at it.