Photos By Franz Mahr, Words By Erin Crandell
From House of Cards to the almost-better-than-fiction Republican Presidential Primary debates, there are ample choices for politics-themed entertainment. This month Signature Theatre jumps in the mix with their dark comedy rock musical The Fix. The Fix is a story of the Chandlers; a political family that lost everything, and the one mother who had no choice but to keep them all together. It may seem absurd to borrow lines from Arrested Development in this context, but I couldn’t help noticing the connections. The fall of a patriarch, the reluctant son drawn into a position of great responsibility, and the emotionally manipulative mother are all present.
The Chandlers are a Kennedy-esque family living in an ambiguous era of recent US history. The son Cal (played by Mark Evans) has a fondness for the rock and roll lifestyle and very few political aspirations. He is pulled out of his cushy life when his father unceremoniously dies right before becoming president. Ever the opportunist, his mother Violet (played by Christine Sherrill) and his Uncle Graham (played by Lawrence Redmond) pull Cal out of his haze and enlist him. Constantly craving his mother’s approval, Cal goes along with the game.
Nothing in this show is subtle, just as nothing in politics is subtle. When I commented on the abundance of pill bottles, baggies of white powder, and syringes on the prop table backstage, I was shown the three shopping carts full of fake drugs standing in the wings. Literal smoke and literal mirrors are used throughout the show. But Friday evening before opening weekend backstage is relatively calm. Actors are brushing their teeth or reviewing their lines, the wig master is touching up a particularly well-styled blonde specimen mounted on a Styrofoam head, and the Stage Manager is preparing for a long night of complicated cues. In the conference room, Evans and Sherrill are relaxing in civilian clothes.
Evans may look like the perfect All-American son with a muscular build and perfectly tousled blonde hair, but he had a lot of work to do to prepare for his role as prodigal son Cal Chandler. Evans is British, and has only lived in the United States since 2009. Living exclusively through the Obama presidency gave him a sense of the political egos in play, and he supplemented with YouTube videos to develop a politician’s cadence.
“I was watching loads and loads of YouTube videos of public speeches made by past presidents,” said Evans. “But the one that really caught my eye was ‘How to Run for Political Office.’ It was a YouTube video.”
The video outlined a campaign strategy that would’ve made the Chandlers proud. Instead of focusing on any issues, the video exclusively focused on The Game, i.e. what to wear, what to say, and what to do to ascend to political office. Not finding this game much fun, Cal moves away from the political rhetoric and learns (as the 2016 Republican candidates are quickly learning) that while Uncle Graham’s staunch belief that “Sanity is expected in the White House!” may be true, a little drama always goes a long way.
“As far is Cal is concerned, he is clueless in this whole thing so it kind of helps to watch Donald Trump and some of the speeches that he’s made because you think, this is outrageous,” said Evans.
And so, real life intertwines with fiction. With the support of a board member who works as a media consultant for the George W. Bush and Romney campaigns, the marketing team has mimicked a real political campaign for Cal Chandler. They have hung campaign posters, designed buttons, and even set up lawn signs in people’s front yards. The materials are high-quality enough to fool the less discerning viewer, but the campaign slogan of “Whatever it takes” does seem a little too Machiavellian for real life.
“I’ve had friends point out the signs and say ‘That’s a cocky campaign slogan. Who is that jerk?’” said Publicity and Community Relations Manager James Gardiner. “My goal is that somebody ends up voting for him as a write in.”
Even if the public could look past Cal Chandler’s nasty little heroin habit, it is a hard sell. It’s hard to believe that families like the Chandlers could exist in politics. Violet is manipulative and dark; think equal parts Lucille Bluth and Claire Underwood. She is the ultimate political game-master, and controls the male characters with a mastery that Lady Macbeth would be proud of.
“Violet Chandler has high political aspirations, but zero maternal inclinations,” said Sherrill. “That about sums it up.”
Even though Violet is dark, manipulative, and treats her son like a prop, it’s hard not to admire her and understand where she is coming from.
“I think any woman in politics is reflected in Violet because you sure do have to be empowered,” said Sherrill. “I think about who comes into contact with the campaign planning that’s advancing [Cal’s] success, and there are no other women, it’s just her. So she’s gotta get the job done.”
Sherrill’s performance is outstanding. Violet may not be speaking in every scene she is in, but everyone on stage and everyone in the audience knows that she is in charge. If she is not destined to be the wife of a president, you bet your ass she will be his mother. Violet Chandler will perform the role of dutiful mother as long as it takes to get her due.
The parallels between politics and theatrical performance seem endless. In The Fix the audience watches Cal trying on costumes, learning lines, and adapting his mannerisms to fit a new character just as Mark Evans and Christine Sherrill do for their characters. Both performances are high-stakes, in front of a live audience, with no room for error. In both situations, the women who succeed have to have outsized ambition and drive.
On my way out the door we ran into Kerry Epstein, the Stage Manager, and I asked her if she feels like Violet Chandler, telling everyone what to do and manipulating the production from behind the scenes. She giggled and said she did a little, but then doesn’t everybody wish they had a little bit of Violet Chandler in them?