Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins

This drama about the Texas writer is informative, entertaining, and inspiring

Arts Review

Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins

Zach Theatre's Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside, 476-0541

Through March 13

Running time: 1 hr., 10 min.

Home-field advantage isn't a term I normally apply to theatre. Usually a production – even attended by patrons, friends, and theatre folk – must convince its audience that the world, the story, and the characters created are worth caring about. Not so with Zach Theatre's production of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. This audience was primed not just with a knowledge of Molly Ivins but a love for her. An audience that knew how to react to every ancillary figure projected on screen before Ivins did. An audience all too willing to boo and hiss at "Shrub" – Ivins' nickname for George W. Bush – with as much rancor as Ivins had for him.

Nowhere does the mythos of Molly run deeper than in Austin, which is why director David Esbjornson and playwrights Margaret and Allison Engel chose the Texas capital as the play's second stop after debuting it in Philadelphia last year. Friends to whom I mentioned this play instantly brought up memories of Final Fridays and The Texas Observer.

The flip side to this home-field advantage is that the audience will know when it's getting the false article. The tremendous responsibility of honoring Ivins correctly was not lost on the Engel sisters, two journalists drawn to playwriting by the impact that Ivins had on their lives. Journalists may seem unlikely figures to craft an artistic depiction of such a strong, colorful character, but what really drives this piece are the facts from Ivins' life and the words from her articles. Like good journalists, the Engels' work is focused on truth, something that most plays lack in some measure.

At times, this play gives the feeling of educational theatre – the purpose of the play seems to be getting across Ivins' rhetoric, history, and relation to Texas political history as much as telling a good story. But this is the kind of educational play that I wish children would be exposed to: free from the cellophane wrapping of public education, free from black-and-white interpretation, free from overly careful editing, that recognizes all the truths and failures of life and tosses back a beer all the same.

Every one-person show will only go so far as its performer, and between Kathleen Turner playing the role in its premiere and Ivins herself, Barbara Chisholm has some powerfully big red boots to fill. But Chisholm goes beyond acquitting herself; she thrives in the one-part-wit-and-one-part-whiskey persona of Ivins and nails every deadpan line and zinger thrown her way. I'd be interested to hear how people with more personal knowledge of Ivins react to her portrayal, but regardless, Chisholm creates a vibrant, striking character throughout.

I'll confess I'm not a huge fan of politics. By and large, the topic depresses me, and the closest I like to get to politics and journalism is deciding whether to review a show that my colleagues are in. Let it be said, however, that home-field advantage worked on my jaded political leanings as well. Red Hot Patriot pays tribute to Ivins and her work in a way that is not only informative and entertaining but inspiring, too – and I doubt she could've asked for much more from one of her articles.

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Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, Zach Theatre, Molly Ivins, Barbara Chisholm, Margaret Engel, Allison Engel, David Esbjornson

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