With an eye toward the First Amendment, let me say that Mixed motherfucking Blood Theatre's Bill of (W)Rights is to good theater what our asshole president's backpedaling about "weapons of mass destruction-related activities" is to bullshit. By which I mean that Bill of (W)Rights is an extraordinary case; we might even call it great. And it's great despite the fact that much of it (half?) is, if you'll excuse my belletrism, kind of sucky. Or perhaps its sporadic suckiness is part of its greatness. By design, the piece was hastily written and rehearsed, which gives some of it the feel of a dress rehearsal of a rough draft--but an exceptionally exciting, in-the-moment one. Conceived by Guthrie literary director Michael Bigelow Dixon and Mixed Blood artistic director Jack Reuler, Bill of (W)Rights comprises 10 short plays by nine writers and brings together 24 actors and five directors. It starts and ends in Mixed Blood's Alan Page Auditorium with two framing pieces by Jeffrey Hatcher. For the remaining miniatures, the audience splits into groups and voyages through the Mixed Blood's converted 1887 firehouse for an octet of eight-minute plays. There are scenes in dressing rooms and hallways, and even one outside the theater in a beat-up 1991 Oldsmobile 98. Mainly through allegory, each play basically covers one amendment, though there's a fair amount of overlap. For good reason, the First Amendment gets special attention, and the Sixth and Seventh Amendments are treated together in Rebecca Gilman's "Your Day in Court."
Despite my childhood fondness for Schoolhouse Rock and my above-average performance in high school civics, I was a bit wary of this show, which seemed highly vulnerable to pedagogy, preachiness, and other P-words not generally at the core of my favorite art. My fears were assuaged, at least temporarily, by Hatcher's hilarious show-opening take on freedom of speech. It begins like the flurry of epithets delivered directly to the camera in Do the Right Thing, with various stereotypical iconoclasts and idiots--a redneck, a man-hater, a pornographer--exercising their First Amendment right to say hateful or unpopular things. Soon, an Everyliberal (Harry Waters Jr., who's spot-on) emerges as the voice of reason, providing wry commentary on the constitutionality of the surrounding invective while skewering the insularity and p.c. smugness that sometimes infects us NPR-molded, art-loving types in the house.
Since satire of this last group has been extensive, it's a testament to Hatcher's gifts that his material is so funny and even surprising. With keen irony, it ends with a tableau vivant that includes a stripped-to-her-underwear Nazi, smiling obnoxiously while Waters's narrator avers that the public money that goes to nonprofit theater could, for instance, help feed the hungry. Hatcher continues in this cutting style for the first half of his closing piece on federalism and states' rights. Unfortunately, he wraps things up with a rousing speech against the Balkanization of American culture, which this unerringly tolerant critic suspects will only seem profound to moronic Wisconsinites and narrow-minded, platitude-loving Republicans.
In between Hatcher's stuff is a mixed bag of modest triumphs and noble missteps, a few of which veer dangerously into public-service-announcement territory. Even the lesser efforts, though, are often redeemed by novel and inventive presentations. For Syl Jones's "Sacrament," the mini-play staged outside in the Olds, the blanket-equipped audience watches a pathetic tryst between a defrocked, pedophiliac priest and one of his now-grown victims. The piece, alas, is as trite as it is uncomfortable, but the inverted drive-in effect of the staging largely compensates.
While many of the Bill of (W)Rights offerings are acted with greater dexterity than they are written, "The Billet," a Third Amendment-inspired offering from the Playwright Sometimes Known As Jane Martin (Jon Jory), excels on all levels. Charity Jones plays an upper-middle-class woman whose home is suddenly commandeered by soldiers who've taken the Patriot Act to its dystopian extreme. Michael Egan and Raúl Ramos are chilling--and disturbingly comic--as the unwelcome houseguests, while the terror and grief and rage of Jones's character is as awful as a car wreck and as vivid as blood.