It’s one thing to be nostalgic for mom’s apple pie, but another to look back wistfully at the past decade in which a U.S. president bumbled around the world’s stage and men with questionable intentions guided him from one calamitous decision to the next. Even after eight years of the Bush administration, the analogy of an emperor without the good sense to realize he’s been played for a fool hasn’t lost its resonance.
Playwrights Andrea Studley and Michael Catangay of Deuce Theatre seized on the allusions to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in their satirical look at the former president, The Emperor Is Naked?
Emperor‘s shift in tone, from new clothes to the full monty, alerts the audience that this isn’t a children’s fairy tale.
“Having naked in the title makes it evident that it’s a bit more of an adult show,” Studley says.
And the question mark?
“We kind of wanted to make it a mystery,” Catangay says, noting the outcome of the show is dependent on the audience.
Their modern yarn is set in the Empire of Üs, where Emperor Ramses II is preparing for his birthday while his Ministers of Offense and Defense take the opportunity to launch a war. They argue that they are protecting Üsland, when they’re actually coveting neighboring Üstopia’s grain supplies.
If that doesn’t sound familiar, you’re reading this story from the comfort of your cave.
“Having it be in a make-believe fairy tale makes it easier to swallow,” Studley says.
The tale isn’t a heavy-handed indictment of Bush and his crew, but rather a conversation starter.
“We didn’t want people to feel like we were preaching to them,” Catangay says. “That could turn them off.”
The writers and actors talk with the audience about the piece after the show, and the audience reaction has run the gamut. Some more conservative audience members have been enamored by the production. They seem convinced it’s like The Colbert Report in which the comedian’s biting sarcasm is actually supporting right-wing values, not mocking them.
Keen observers of the Bush years will have lots of little nuggets to feast on in Emperor. In one scene, an audience member is given a question to ask the emperor during a press conference. On the surface, it’s audience participation, but it’s also an allusion to incidences when the Bush administration planted questions at town hall events.
“There’s a lot in there that people on that vibe will get,” Studley says.
But she notes that the production moves fast, so it’s okay if you don’t get every reference. The next, less-obscure joke is just around the corner.
In most tellings of the classic “Emperor” tale, there’s an implied fatalism. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic, the character Dream says, “It has always been the prerogative of children and half-wits to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the half-wit remains a half-wit, and the emperor remains an emperor.”
In our case, we don’t just have a nude emperor — we have a new emperor.
Now in the post-Bush era, there’s some question about the relevancy of looking back, be it in anger, amusement, or both. But the play’s themes may be more important now than ever.
“It’s the idea of being more aware of what’s going on around you,” Catangay says.
The truth doesn’t always find you. Sometimes you have to go looking for it. And that ageless theme isn’t partisan.
“You have to be careful not to sink into the comfort,” Studley says. “You risk making the same mistakes.”