Behind this façade of musical satire, Christopher Shorr’s “Dictators 4 Dummies” is grounded in some very real horrors of our current global political climate.
I walked in Touchstone Theater on 3rd Street, and immediately, unbeknownst to me, I was already on set of this faux-production. The production assistant, played by Emma Ackerman, was smiling by the doors with a belt of equipment around her waist and a headset around her ears. Behind her, a banner draped across the stage with “tyrants of tomorrow” across it. There was a four-piece band warming up stage-left, and an LED “LIVE” sign stage-right.
Ackerman cleared her throat and announced, in a grand manner: “Welcome! We’re so glad you could join us as part of the studio’s live audience. You’re an important part of the show for people watching at home, so remember, laugh, applaud and donate to the cause now!” I nodded and took my seat toward the back.
When the time came, Ackerman walked down and handed out those novelty mustache-glasses for those willing to donate to their cause. I got a chuckle out of the commitment they seemed to have to the premise so far, but that was just the beginning: entire skits were based around fake callers or pre-written tweets (#BeMyDespot #IHeartTyrants) while we were all encouraged to “call the number on our screen today.”
Up until this point, however, I didn’t think the play had started. But no, it very much had. Shorr uses the telethon rouse brilliantly to really ground his witty one-liners and full-blown musical numbers in a unique way. I still have the line from the opening song, “We win only when you play along… Dummy!” stuck in my head.
Meet the hosts: General Carlo Supremo and Hefe Pablo. Carlo, played by Shorr himself, is the weak and jealous type, often envious of the guests and eternally butting back into the spotlight. Pablo, played by JP Jordan, is a strong, Che Guevara type, but his confidence—and rapidly increasingly drunkenness (Joe Stalin left his handle of Russian Standard on the stage) keeps him from really having a strong influence on the plot or the crowd.
The structure of the play isn’t simple, as it weaves in and out of two worlds: one where the show was being televised and one where there’s a commercial break. The latter does a lot to inform the former, as we catch a glimpse into just how normal these big, scary despots can be. This was actually one of the most successful and fresh elements of the show.
When the telethon was live, the hosts brought on a handful of guests, ranging from Stalin to Slobadon. Each one played by Mary Wright, they all brought their own song to the program. Wright’s impersonations and Shorr’s witty writing kept the program moving in the right direction.
The wildest part of the show was undoubtedly the rise of Ackerman’s character. As the lowly production assistant but a self-proclaimed up-and-coming dictator, she comes to grow weary of her marginalized position, usurping the hosts and the guests by the show’s finale. This is perhaps the most interesting product of the two-world structure I spoke about earlier—we, the audience, have heard Ackerman’s aspirations and pleas for attention, but neither Carlo and Hefe see this coup coming, with all their drinking and tomfoolery during each commercial break.
What’s best about this plot device though is its liberation of gender stereotypes: Ackerman admits, “I can’t grow a dic … [pause] … tator’s mustache!” but that doesn’t stop her from ending up on top. Easily the best line of the night.
One of Shorr’s first moves of the play’s creation was his “Fascist Playbook,” a “catalog of moves” he said he noticed playing out in Hungary several years ago. He began to notice, however, that “the tide was shifting” onto our shores, with the “equating of individualism with arrogance and intellectualism with elitism, the saying of everything people want to hear, the search for scapegoats, and the discrediting of critics.” This is all very scary stuff.
Scarier yet: the whole model of the play—draping humor on top of despotism—operates as an unspoken indicator of our own desensitization to these types of injustices. We joke, we sing, we laugh, all the while corruption and hate still function in our political landscape. To joke, sing, and laugh with such these immoralities at the centerpiece, Shorr gives us a space to reflect on and reform our perspective.
“Our desire to be comfortable is often stronger than our willingness to risk, and our instinct for self-preservation often trumps our impulse to stand up,” he said in the Playbill.
The good news is—they win only when we play along.