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Remember that attraction at Disneyland that features a creaky, prosthetic Abe Lincoln who talks about his life and rattles off an animatronic Emancipation Proclamation? That's what Ben Tyler's Goldwater: Mr. Conservative could easily have been. But thanks to some unsentimental writing, this 90-minute, one-man commemoration of Arizona's best-known former senator is as entertaining as theater biography gets.
Tyler seems determined to teach us an Arizona history lesson. He's the playwright/director responsible for Guv: The Musical, that send-up of local politics that played forever and spawned a pile of pathetic sequels. He dreams of one day writing and producing a musical about Winnie Ruth Judd, Phoenix's infamous "trunk murderess." In the meantime, his latest paean to political past is a multimedia primer that proves how far American conservatism has strayed in the past 30 years.
Tyler, a Democrat, became interested in creating a theatrical biography of the Republican Goldwater's life a couple of years ago, after he read an editorial Goldwater wrote defending the rights of gays to serve in the military. After Goldwater okayed the project (he refused to endorse the play officially, saying there were "too many people in the script who are still alive" who might be offended), Tyler began boning up on Barry.
The script whittles Goldwater's personal and professional lives down to a handful of character-revealing vignettes in which the former presidential hopeful blabs about his political career, shares a slide show of his historic desert travels, and invites the audience to join him for iced tea at intermission.
Goldwater isn't all home movies and reminiscences. Tyler assumes that most of us consider the former senator either a dinosaur of the conservative movement or a harmless old coot who shouldn't be taken seriously. Tyler's play asks us to believe he was a man ahead of his time, and then proceeds to prove that the rules once used to measure the political landscape have been tossed out. As Goldwater-style conservatism has wandered, it's bumped up against issues that have nothing to do with its core beliefs. Historical Barry Goldwater, according to Ben Tyler, is today at odds with the Falwells and Limbaughs, not in league with them.
"It's really an accurate portrait of Barry," gushes Susan, the second Mrs. Goldwater, who's been known to make curtain speeches at productions of Tyler's play. "His real voice is up there, not just what we've heard him say publicly."
Indeed, Tyler has rendered Goldwater as something more than a batch of sound bites from a famous politician. The retired politician is known for making a point in as few words as possible, which isn't a particularly captivating storytelling technique. But Tyler has crafted dialogue that expands the man's vocabulary while maintaining his curt, salty language.
When the play was workshopped here last summer, critics lauded 30ish Hamilton Mitchell--who portrays Goldwater with the help of a putty nose and a silver wig--for his dead-on impersonation of the former senator's vocal tone and cadence. Good thing, too, since the man himself took a front-row seat at an early performance.
"That night, the audience mostly watched Goldwater watching me," Mitchell recalls. "He probably enjoyed that more than I did."
Director David Barker, who knows his way around a one-man show (his solo Richard III played forever here and at numerous Shakespeare festivals), infuses what could be a static program with some much-needed stage movement. He has Mitchell acting out much of the action he's describing, rather than standing stock-still reciting monologues from Goldwater's past. And to punch up Tyler's point about Goldwater's political prescience, Barker flashes current newspaper headlines onto a scrim while Mitchell reads Goldwater's 1964 speech accepting his party's presidential nomination.
The generous participation of the big guy himself hasn't hurt the production. Mitchell spent time with Goldwater to prepare for the role, and wears one of Goldwater's own suits and carries his cane in the show. The set pieces and props--including several of Barry's beloved kachinas--are all the real thing, too, imported directly from the Goldwater home.
Despite Goldwater's involvement, Tyler presents him warts and all. His Goldwater allows that he wasn't a great father, spending more time on the campaign trail than with his kids. And Goldwater's up-by-your-bootstraps principles are contrasted with gentle reminders that these are the words of a man who was heir to a department-store chain.
"I tried to convey that, although Barry was born to wealth, he's conducted his life as the child of people who brought themselves up from nothing," Tyler says.
Tyler isn't kidding when he says, "If I weren't an actor, I'd make a pretty good history teacher," though perhaps what he should be teaching is political optimism. "I hope this play reminds people that not all politicians are crooks," he says.
Maybe Tyler's on to something. Perhaps, for every political scandal Arizona is made to endure, we should send out a theatrical biography of one of our statesmen who didn't swindle the government or cheat his constituents. Or maybe Ben Tyler should pack it in and become a political speech writer.