I caught the matinee of TAPIT/new works' Tear Up the Front Page last Saturday. I liked almost everything about this earnest little theater piece, including the venue, the TAPIT/new works studio, on the Chicagoesque corner of Winnebago and Atwood.
The show, written by TAPIT/new works' Danielle Dresden and directed by Kathy Lynn Sliter, whose résumé includes both local and big-city productions, is based on the people's opinions. Dresden, TAPIT co-director Donna Peckett and emeritus UW prof Fred Newmann crisscrossed the state, asking questions about the media. They were amazed to find out folks in small-town fundamentalist churches were as cynical about the news as Mad City lefties.
Quotes from these sessions drive the plot of Dresden's parable about how the political machine manipulates the message. The story involves a city reeling from storm damage, a liberal reporter, a spaced-out stoolie, an insurance scam and a crooked campaign.
The simple set - a table, phone, chair and ladder - becomes newsroom, living room, coffee shop and the corridors of power in a capital city. Powerpoint slides bearing quotes ("I drank the Kool-Aid - I really believed in objectivity." "Whose truth is it?") and clever color cartoons done by P.S. Mueller especially for this show (a pol talking outta both sides of his mouth, a king and a jester dancing together) provide astute asides.
Instead of the usual over-the-top assault by Madison's pool of part-time actors, the performing is mostly subtle and sincere. In particular, Donovon Armbruster, who's done off-Broadway as well as regional productions across the country, is utterly convincing as a nice-guy liberal reporter trapped in a high-pressure spin cycle. Dave Durbin, who appeared in the Madison-made indie film Side Effects last year, is equally believable as an acerbic blogger with no loyalties.
Dresden and Peckett switch smoothly between dual, oppositional roles - Dresden as a Machiavellian pol and the liberal reporter's downtrodden sister, Peckett as both the snitch and a flinty insurance mogul who gets swift-boated.
Tear Up the Front Page isn't a perfect play. The plot, in spots, stretches thin, requiring small leaps of faith to connect the dots. The slides - especially Mueller's clever cartoons - flash past too fast to pack their full punch.
But the gestalt is clear, its message dead-on as midterm election coverage in the world outside the theater reached hysterical new heights. Summing up, Joseph Pulitzer's century-old line lights the screen at the end of the show: "Our republic and its press will rise or fall together."
Were truer words ever spoken?