At Benchmark, a revelatory recap of the Jan. 6 madness
It’s fair to ask, with wall-to-wall coverage on every media outlet for more than a year now, if we needed another take on the whole Jan. 6 mess. Before seeing Our American Cousin: A Nation Divided at the Benchmark Theatre on its closing weekend, I might have said no.
With new and increasingly alarming revelations from the January 6 congressional committee coming out daily, it’s seemed clear that the “truth is stranger than fiction” dictum is the guiding principle. But what Benchmark has done with Our American Cousin is to not fictionalize the events at all. Rather, the creative team combed through hours and hours of video footage from the attacks, media reports, testimonies and other sources to piece together a harrowing and eye-opening look at the insurrection using only the real words spoken by the many players.
It’s not a pretty picture. Despite a sadly deranged portion of our population and elected leaders working to whitewash these events as no big deal, it’s impossible to watch this production and walk away with anything other than a sense of deep foreboding that, as bad as January 6 was, it could — and likely will — get worse.
I asked myself a number of times while watching Our American Cousin if it appeared slanted in any way. Were the selected clips picked to paint the most damaging picture of the MAGA-verse, or were the inevitable conclusions drawn by the audience simply the case of said participants hanging themselves with their own video rope?
My conclusion was no, that while there are undoubtedly plenty more servings of dystopian word salad out there from the likes of Tucker Carlson or Alex Jones or the Q-Anon Shaman or whomever, there’s no rational being who could view these events as anything other than what they are on real video captured of the entire fucking thing. Anything else is just a monumental gaslighting on a scale never before seen in this country.
The genius of Benchmark’s version is not in presenting alt-takes on anything, or adding explanatory narration (beyond that of the newscasters) but serving up the whole rotten affair for what it was: an insurrection inspired and encouraged by the former guy and his minions followed by a patently absurd coverup of something we all saw in real time. As noted in the program: “This. Actually. Happened.”
It also struck me that Americans have become so inured to chaos since 2017 that we really do need to keep being reminded that January 6 really was a big, scary deal. While that fact can get lost in the noise, seeing the story played out in a compact form like this really offers a fresh perspective. This is the kind of thing historians of the future might use to help explain to future generations what in the hell happened to America in 2021.
As the title suggests, the inspiration for this show came from the play Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated. History has it that Lincoln had already seen Tom Taylor’s comedy Our American Cousin and hadn’t liked it much. The only reason he was there on April 14, 1865 was to accompany his wife to the show. The Benchmark production kicks off with the portion of the play being performed when Lincoln was shot. Immediately afterwards, all hell breaks loose as lights flash, drums crash and actors fly about quickly transforming the Victorian parlor into a multi-level industrial set highlighted by barricades and TV monitors.
I’m not sure how important that connection is, but it’s certainly true that John Wilkes Boothe had something in common with the MAGA morons: a guy who just couldn’t accept how things went down and who mistakenly believed violence would somehow fix it. If nothing else, the theatrical effect of having that historic moment reenacted and then lurching into the present is a neat device.
It’s a high-energy, fast-moving show presented by a top-flight ensemble cast featuring Shannon Altner, Chris Kendall, Bruce Laks, Suzanne Nepi, Josiah Peters and Ryan Omar Stack. Many of the costume changes take place onstage as the actors finish delivering the lines from the character they’re changing out of. The six play a huge variety of characters, all of which add up to a master class in how strong actors can change personalities as quickly as their costumes.
It’s wild to see Altner play both Lauren Boebert and MAGA martyr Ashli Babbitt and then switch over to Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold responding to the machinations of wack-a-doo Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters (a spot-on Nepi, who also