New Mexico has four great public spectacles. These are the events that unite our divided, divisive and diverse peoples in the name of common causes, crazy circuses and communal celebrations.
All of them occur in the autumn. This is when summer heat wanes, monsoon thunderstorms abate, wildflowers burst into bloom in fields and along roadsides, moms load their kids onto school buses, and New Mexican minds focus on fun.
In the City Different, Las Fiestas de Santa Fe have as their centerpiece the burning of Old Man Gloom, Zozobra, in front of between one-third and one-half of the town’s total population. This is the one time of year when Hispanics and Anglos, poor and rich, West Siders and East Siders, newcomers and natives, join together to bury what they want to forget and memorialize what they would prefer to remember.
In Albuquerque, the New Mexico State Fair, although suffering from years-long decline, still performs its most valuable function of unifying country and city folks, rural with urban lifestyles, a million and a half farmers and ranchers and townsmen from all over the state with Albuquerque’s half million bureaucrats, businessmen and laborers.
In October, transparent blue skies are transformed into spectacles of colors and shapes as the International Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta captures the imagination of the state and the eyes of the nation. Thousands of tourists join New Mexicans in cheering at the Balloon Festival, the event that more than any other unites those who live here year round with those who stop over only briefly to taste our culture and incidentally support our flailing economy with their dollars and euros.
Last but not—certainly not—least of the four great fall spectacles is the election, the one time everyone looks at our political system, debates what is right and wrong about it, and chooses those who will guide it. Elections may look like mundane politics, a montage of polls and attack ads and money that stops just short—if even that—of bribery.
But they are a lot more, especially the great national circus that traditionally begins next week, right after Labor Day, and continues until the first Tuesday in November. It is a spectacle that grips the entire nation like no other. Billions of dollars help keep TV stations, newspapers, magazines and even web sites afloat for another year. Entire professions—consultants, pollsters, political scientists, pundits, bloggers, political journalists, advertising copywriters and data wonks of so many stripes they resemble zebras—depend on the spectacle to put food on the table, even if it happens to be caviar.
Hundreds of thousands give money, receive jobs or just volunteer to be part of the spectacle. And tens of millions of the rest of us join the event by voting. We may carefully attend to the policies and speeches and debates and news stories and gossip. Or we may just enter a polling booth and push the first button or pull the first lever that comes to hand. Either way, we are not only part of the process but the essence of what it is all about.
As long as we have had elections, people have tried to make art out of them. Art demands order and perspective and wisdom, a tall order when confronted with this mass of mirage, myth and just plain mess. Nevertheless those who create art keep on trying.
The latest effort opened last week on the stage of the Vortex Theater in Albuquerque. “Electoral Dysfunctions” is a collection of eight 10-minute skits about elections. The hoariest reaches back more than two centuries to Ben Franklin and George Washington. The newest looks forward to a future Donald Trump presidency.
The acting in these brief dramas and comedies is by and large superb. The large cast is fully professional, in experience and talent if not in compensation. And I am very fond of the Vortex’s design with banks of seats arrayed above all four sides of the central acting space.
Unifying the great diversity of styles and themes in the individual plays is the narration of Arthur Alpert as Donald Trump and Yolanda Luchette Knight as his wife Melania.
Alpert looks nothing like Trump. Slender, elderly, a bit stooped and incorrigibly polite and mild mannered, he is if anything the anti-Trump. Then he walks onto the stage in a yellow wig and ends a monologue with Trump’s iconic line, “Believe me.” Although you don’t believe a thing he has said (which is why of course Trump must reiterate the sentence), you do believe for a moment that he is Donald Trump.
This is the essence of acting, good acting: to make you suspend disbelief, to believe the unbelievable. Alpert, an experienced actor who has had multiple careers in newspapers, TV and radio (he still co-writes a blog called ABQ Journal Watch), once again manifests the kind of professionalism that you see more often on the Albuquerque stage than we small city hinterland denizens have any right to expect.
While the texts of the eight plays are uneven in quality, collectively they teach an interesting lesson: Our current election season, no matter how absurd or comical it often seems, is merely the latest chapter in our long and great fall circus.
The plays are “The End” by J.B. Saavedra, “Thump-Trumper of the GOP” by Kathleen Matthews, “Prude and Prejudice” by Susan Erickson, “The Reluctant Nominee” by Richard E. Peck, “Selection” by Jim Hisler, “Two Ears, One Mouth” by Liz McMaster, “Tied Up” by Hugo Patino-Cano and “Heaven” by Berry Simon.
“Electoral Dysfunctions” continues at the Vortex, 2900 Carlisle NE in Albuquerque, through Sept. 11, with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.