Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: Growing Pains for S.F. Playhouse

Jessica Palopoli_BBAJ.jpg
Jessica Palopoli
Ashkon Davaran as the president who taught Americans how to reject elitism and, more importantly, how to rock.

Andrew Jackson, title character of San Francisco Playhouse's 10th season opener, doubled the size of the United States, and it's no coincidence that the theater company itself begins this anniversary season in a new space with twice the seats. Formerly in a 100-seat venue on Sutter Street, the company has moved a block away to what was once the Post Street Theatre, and the space has never looked better. Though gorgeous, with details like a coffered ceiling and Gothic moldings, the theater had its share of problems: It was cavernous, at 729 seats, and the stage seemed trapped inside its proscenium arch, which distanced actors from the audience.

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In the brief time the company has had to move in (which was "a little like invading Normandy," says Artistic Director Bill English), it has fixed both of those issues, expanding the stage into the audience and bringing the audience closer to the stage by shrinking the number of seats to just 200. The result captures the best of the space and the best of the Playhouse: It's elegant in a way that brings to theater a sense of occasion but it's also warm, accessible, and festive, like much of the Playhouse's work.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the emo-rock musical with a book by Alex Timbers and music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, is itself one big party. Whether he's wooing his future wife Rachel (Angel Burgess) with their (what else?) bizarre bleeding ritual, killing or banishing thousands of Native Americans, or encapsulating his political philosophy in song ("Populism, Yea, Yea!"), this version of Andrew Jackson (Ashkon Davaran) is supposed to be an angry adolescent who's been given his own rock concert, a solo show in political theater that's as much about his he-man charm as his disdain for elites. Poured into the tightest possible jeans, he is for men "the candidate I'd most like to have a beer with" and for women the candidate they want to fuck.

But if the show is a non-stop party, it lacks heart. Its substance is snark -- tired snark. "I love you, Rache," goes one line, "but I've also gotta kill the entire native population." We've heard these jibes about overreaching presidents before, and even worse are the jokes that stem from no dramatic motivation, like the one about Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor: "But Susan Sontag's dead, so I guess her cancer wasn't metaphorical after all." Director Jon Tracy keeps the cast's energy frenetic and the lights, by Kurt Landisman, as colorful and schizophrenic as a rock concert's, but those choices don't make up for the emptiness at the show's core.

The New York premiere, at the Public Theater in 2010, derived much of its success from the charisma and sexual magnetism of its star, Benjamin Walker. Davaran instead emphasizes Andrew Jackson's childishness, ending declarative sentences with upward inflection and reveling in his teen angst. When others are preternaturally attracted to him, it's more because they have nowhere else to turn than because Jackson is someone to turn to.

The musical purports to be about the president who "put the 'man' in 'manifest destiny,'" but all we see is a child. It tells us we're going to see some "serious, serious shit," but instead it gives only well-worn irreverence and superficial humor. The San Francisco Playhouse might be maturing as a company with its new space, but its first show there is stubbornly immature.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through Nov. 24 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Admission is $30-$70.

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