Red Phoenix Theatre
Holden Street Theatres
Until 19 Aug 2017

Review by Paige Mulholland

For a show dealing with themes like war, murder, and corruption, “The White House Murder Case” is a lot funnier than you might expect. A bizarre mix of political critique, slapstick comedy, satire, and a whodunnit, it is both funny and concerning how closely a play that was written forty years ago as a comedy mirrors the current political climate.

Set somewhere around the present day but written in the heat of the Vietnam War, cartoonist, satirist and writer Jules Feiffer shows his comic-strip roots in the slapstick aesthetic of the play, but also makes intelligent, witty and, to an extent, probably quite true guesses about what happens inside the oval office.

In “The White House Murder Case”, the US is at war with Brazil, and toying with the idea of using an experimental nerve gas on their advancing enemies. Eventually, the soldiers on the ground decide the untested gas is their only option and deploy it, only to have the wind change and hundreds of American soldiers die as a result. When this news reaches the Oval Office, the President and his advisors quickly shift from the facts of the incident to the “fake news” they can create from it, and how they can shift the blame away from the government and the military. Just as the decision is made and the finishing touches are being added to the cover story, a brutal murder occurs in The White House, and the inner circle are faced with the same problem – how can they take this scandalous murder and spin it in their favour?

We switch constantly between the stories unfolding in the White House and on the battlefront in Brazil, where the soldier responsible for deploying the nerve gas and the CIA agent attempting to interrogate him slowly succumb to the effects of the gas, snapping off appendages, hallucinating and becoming the peace-loving hippies they once criticised. The slapstick comedy in these scenes isn’t for everyone, but many members of the audience were laughing their heads off (not unlike the soldiers, whose heads did a fair bit of rolling too).

“The White House Murder Case” is certainly an ensemble show, and each performer easily carries their weight. Robert Bell (Lieutenant Cutler) and Matt Houston (Captain Weems), have an excellent chemistry together and maintain the best American accents in the show and Gary George was a crowd favourite as the maimed General Pratt. His performance was very well-rounded, mastering both the physical (to this reviewer, there are only so many times you can hear someone clunking across the stage with a paralysed leg and find it funny, but the rest of the audience obviously disagreed) and verbal elements of his character. Anita Zamberlan Canala had one of the smaller parts in the show, but certainly made her mark as the President’s left-sympathising, rebellious wife, and Tim Williams played the easily-led, well-meaning President with exactly the smarmy likeability that the role requires, although sometimes his accent isn’t quite as all-American as his demeanour. The team of presidential advisors work very well together and individually, rounding out the small and talented cast.

The set for the show was excellent, featuring an imposing American flag (hung on curved curtain rods to imitate the walls of the Oval Office) in addition to a small Brazilian jungle. Telling two stories on one (not particularly large) stage is no easy feat, but Red Phoenix have embraced the challenge.

For their first year of operation, Red Phoenix Theatre have set an impressive track record, achieving high production values and professional performances with works that are new to Adelaide and often present challenges both to the audience and to the creative team. It would be excellent to see them target new, broader audiences as they continue to grow, but it is exciting to see full, enthusiastic theatres in Adelaide, no matter what the demographic.

“The White House Murder Case” is a very particular brand of comedy, blending the smart and the goofy in a way that we don’t often see. If you’re a political mind with a goofy streak, or a goof with a bent for politics, this is certainly the show for you.