Who knew that the Internet would turn out to be a new frontier for theater; a stage that lets us choose our exits and entrances while playing any part we please? Everyone with a blog is a solo performer. And all theatrical forms are blogworthy, from diarylike realism to explosive satire.
Political theater thrives on the Web. No censorship, no compromise. Mainstream news media writers and cartoonists get to shake off time and tone constraints. New talent shows up regularly.
The Rude Pundit roared into the blog arena two years ago, and his audience keeps growing. His ferocious column (subtitled "Proudly Lowering the Level of Political Discourse") hurls analysis and abuse at the war in Iraq, religious fundamentalism, America's immigration policies, Congressional scandals and press timidity (rudepundit.blogspot.com).
The author's identity is unknown to most readers. Last week, though, he unmasked himself in a one-man show, "The Rude Pundit in the Year of Living Rudely," part of the New York International Fringe Festival. "He" is Lee Papa, a tall, stocky young man in his 30's with long hippie-esque blond hair, who is a writer, professor and sometime actor.
Mr. Papa was seated in a chair with his back to us when the stage lights came up. ("Us" being the 40 or so people who lounged on couches and secondhand chairs at Dixon Place, the hip performance space on the Bowery that looks like someone's vintage living room.)
Naked, pink-flesh figures were propped up on the wall behind him. They wore the masks of the famous: Ronald Reagan; President Bush and the first lady, Laura Bush; Vice President Dick Cheney; the presidential adviser Karl Rove; and the conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Some had penises, some didn't. You could hear people asking whose was bigger. Why did Mr. Limbaugh and Mr. Rove have breasts instead? And what about Ms. Coulter? Like the versatile Greek prophet Tiresias, she had been granted breasts and a penis, but she bested him, she had both at once.
Mr. Papa is a tornado of a writer. So it was refreshing when he began the show with memories of his adolescence. We're all under some kind of blight as adolescents. His blight was Ronald Reagan, the man who "hounded my life for eight years." In the Rude Pundit's world, Mr. Reagan was the cruel patriarch who set the world on its downward spiral of greed and aggression.
What followed was a set of free-form riffs, separated by blackouts. If you have qualms, prepare to feel them now. I felt fine most of the time, and so it seemed did the rest of the audience. I feel less fine trying to describe the show, because obscenities I am not allowed to quote here burst from almost all his sentences.
Take the Rude Pundit's fantasy of what John Kerry should have said in the presidential debate when Mr. Bush accused him of being a liberal. Mr. Papa hijacks the Republican language of warrior-strength and makes it grotesque. How do we liberals show we're strong, he asks, and answers firmly: "We have to rape Republicans. We have to show them this is what liberals are." Savvy candidates like Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will benefit, he adds: "Then Hillary can say: 'I am not a liberal. Liberals are people who rape Republicans. I have never raped a Republican.' "
Mr. Papa's ruling metaphor is always some form of aggressive to abusive sex. Do you remember that 1970's country hit, "Take This Job and Shove It?" Replace the word "job" with everything from weapons of mass destruction to false information, target someone like Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rove or Mr. Limbaugh, and tell them what to do with it.
The Rude Pundit is a child of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Hunter S. Thompson. Bruce and Richard Pryor were masters of stand-up comedy as political theater. Mr. Thompson was a master of journalism as performance art.
If you know their work you know that in the right hands, fantasy and obscenity are cathartic. They attack hypocrisy, because hypocrisy lulls us. Fantasy charms us and obscenity shocks us.
Mr. Papa is better on the page than onstage, though. He doesn't yet have the performing chops he needs. He is focused and intense in a boyish way. But he almost never varies his tone or pacing.
I still enjoyed the show. It's just that I enjoy his blog more. As a new fan, I also liked the fact that several members of the Listserv I belong to sent me links to their favorite Rude Pundit columns and discussions of his work that read like short, smart reviews. Those are the kinds of shrewd, passionate fans mainstream theaters would kill to attract. They'll have to take a lot more risks first.