Jill Lepore wrote about America’s first political spin doctors ten years ago in The New Yorker. She called the California political consulting team of Leone Baxter and Clem Whittaker “The Lie Factory.” TimeLine Theatre Company member Will Allan calls his play about the pair’s origin story Campaigns, Inc. after their company name, and attempts to reposition their serious turn towards national gaslighting into a screwball comedy.
Baker and Whittaker were like the Macbeths, driven by unflagging ambition and good old greed to lie about, attack and destroy their political opponents. They are the godparents of Fox News and incessant, intrusive political propaganda. They invented “Fake News,” eviscerating the first national attempt at universal healthcare mid-century by creating the talking points still used today to slander the Affordable Care Act. The pair’s decision to prevaricate rather than legislate continues to undermine our democracy.
The one bright spot in their darkness is that Leone was an early feminist, finding agency as the head of their agency. Although they often had to hide that she was president and primary decision-maker to their misogynist clients. The real Clem was a womanizing alcoholic, so Leone needed to be (but also wanted to be) the firm’s leader.
The Nick Bowling-directed production begins with projected faux newsreel footage (designed by Anthony Churchill), setting the scene in 1934 California. Democratic Socialist and The Jungle author Upton Sinclair (Anish Jethmalani) was riding a wave toward the governorship. His End Poverty in California, EPIC, platform was popular, but former Lieutenant Governor Frank Merriam (Terry Hamilton), who stepped in when his boss died, wanted the permanent position. He retained Baxter (Tyler Meredith) and Whittaker (Yuriy Sardarov), then just business partners, to grab the governorship by any means necessary, as the audience learns through some obvious initial exposition. The Jungle referenced Chicago as “full of assholes and animal carcasses,” and the Campaigns, Inc., consultants brought the same to their game.
TimeLine’s tiny, basketball court-like space was well-traveled with set pieces (designed by Sydney Lynne) being spun into each different war room, including Merriam’s stuffy office, the Campaigns work space (which placed the coffee pot in the audience risers), and Sinclair’s domain, which often included his best friend, actor Charlie Chaplin (Dave Honigman). The Little Tramp worries about transitioning into talkie films while Sinclair wonders about moving from writing to politics.
And it’s his writing that Leone and Clem use against him as a cudgel, taking quotes from his works out of context. They mail out six million propaganda postcards, erect 200,000 slanderous billboards, engineer celebrity sport star endorsements like Ty Cobb for Merriman, and produce phony news reels to slam Sinclair with disinformation and outright lies. Even Sinclair’s visits to fellow Democrats Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt (David Parkes and Jacqueline Grandt) don’t get him over the finish line.
It’s difficult to find this take funny since we know where endless fabrication without consequences and aggressive political gaslighting ends. Baxter and Whittaker proudly affirmed that “we make the truth” and Americans still scramble for sunlight in that all-too-real jungle today.
Campaigns, Inc., has been extended through September 25 at TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington, on Wednesdays-Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4 and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm (except 4pm on 8/21). Tickets are $42-57 and are available online and at 773-281-8463.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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