Remember those Mitt Romney flip-flops that were so popular at liberal-leaning beach destinations last summer? They would have been the perfect agitprop accessories 100 years ago, when Theodore Roosevelt was running for president. A companion political cartoon could have featured the mustached 26th president wearing flip-flops and straw hat, looking straight out of a Panama Jack ad.
Panama, as painstakingly dramatized in the Fringe show “Carry a Big Stick,” was the subject of a massive foreign policy flip-flop circa 1901, when the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to construct the Inter-Oceanic Canal not in Panama, but in Nicaragua. Before the Senate can take a vote, Roosevelt has a change of heart, and the play becomes a historical drama about those bygone days when the Senate was run by a bunch of bickering old white guys easily swayed by corporate donors.
Playwright Paul Handy, a District administrative law judge, misses no chance to point out parallels between Roosevelt’s wheelings and dealings and contemporary politics. “In order for capitalism to work, we need to rein in the greedy men who break the rules,” the president tells his political opponent. Sen. Mark Hanna, a Republican from Ohio, retorts that sometimes you have to compromise in order to create jobs. Perhaps that line was a last-minute allusion to this week’s Wal-Mart brouhaha. Perhaps not. But last-minute changes would explain why the lead characters in this play didn’t know their lines. David A. Schmidt, playing Hanna, carried the script around tucked into a leather folder and pretended to be taking notes. As Roosevelt, John McCaffrey had the character down but not his dialogue. “Senator Moore! — I mean — Senator Hanna!” the actor bellowed, considerably detracting from what was intended to be a tense scene.
It’s a shame about the frequent flubs, because McCaffrey was convincing when it came to affable charm and body language. (Throughout the 90-minute play Roosevelt plays tennis, plants the Rose Garden and climbs a mountain.) Terence Aselford, the only Equity actor in the cast, was highly entertaining as a bourbon-swilling Civil War vet and senator from Alabama. But distractions abound, from awkward segues to loud chatter from the bar next door. Just last month, China brokered a deal to finally build that Nicaraguan canal. So for this Fringe playwright and his actors, there’s always next year.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.