Sunday, August 31, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter at the Minetta Lane Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter at the Minetta Lane Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter
Minetta Lane Theatre 
18-22 Minetta Lane
New York, New York 10012
Reviewed 8/29/14

This Icelandic, surreal, multimedia, indie rock musical is set in the small nation of Elbowville, which is located in the elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, a Furniture Painter, who loves watching Robert Redford films. Most of the citizens of Elbowville make a humble living fishing lobsters out of Ragnar's lymphatic system and praying to their god Robert Redford (Praise Bob!), whose movies can be seen up in Eyesockette. If they save enough money, the tiny people of Elbowville might be able to afford a vacation to Knee York, Texass or even Penisylvania. However, the status quo is not enough for Elbowville's leader, Manuela, who seeks to bring increased prosperity to Elbowville through the use of a Prosperity Machine that prints an unlimited number of promissory notes the country can then loan out to people at little or no interest. Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter is a cautionary tale about the invention and ultimately predictable collapse of the modern financial system. While the musical may have been inspired by the 2008 economic crash and recession that hit Iceland, the relevance to the United States cannot be understated. The Federal Reserve now prints money out of thin air backed by nothing other than the full faith and credit of the United States, government guarantees cause banks to loan out money to risky enterprises and people who are unable to repay the loans, and the result is inflation and defaults that cause people to lose their life's savings.

When you arrive in the Minetta Lane Theatre, you see a video of a schlubby, oafish, unattractive working man projected on the back wall of the stage, who is presumably Ragnar Agnarsson. He moves around in his chair and occasionally scratches himself. The set and projections were expertly and innovatively designed by Petr Hlousek. The set consists of industrial steps on either side of the stage leading to a high bridge on which some of the action takes place. Bright tubing has been installed and/or projected onto the walls to evoke the veins and arteries of the human body. Much of this state-of-the-art production design is used to move the story forward, such as when the bloody revolution is mostly projected onto the walls instead of being acted out on stage. Stunning, imaginative costumes were designed by Hrafnhildur Arnardottir and Edda Gunmundsdottir. Exciting, innovative choreography was composed by Lee Proud and the show was expertly directed by Bergur Ingolfsson.

The musical's three main characters are Manuela, Elbowville's ambitious, power hungry Mayor, convincingly brought to life by Cady Huffman, a veteran actress who won a Tony Award for her performance in The Producers; Peter, played by Marrick Smith, a talented actor, singer and dancer who, in my opinion, is a hot, new Broadway bound rising star on the path to super stardom; and Alex, Peter's brother, sympathetically portrayed by Graydon Long, a charismatic, attractive actor with an excellent stage presence. The entire cast is top-notch and could easily follow the show to its Broadway debut. The Book, Music and Lyrics of Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter are by Ivar Pall Jonsson. The band, which appears on stage, is the impressive Revolutionary Cellular Orchestra. I also need to give kudos to Carl Casella, responsible for the Sound Design, who made certain all the microphones were in perfect working order so the audience could clearly hear every word spoken and/or sung. 

Ivar Pall Jonsson and his brother Gunnlaugur Jonsson are jointly responsible for writing the story and this is where I feel the show deserves some criticism. With respect to the financial issues raised, there is a difference between fiat money and the issuance of promissory notes. If the government was merely issuing fiat money, people would have been angry over the devaluation of the currency and not the fact that the promissory notes could not be redeemed. There are also problems in the story as to the dynamics between the characters and the internal logic of the fantasy world the characters live in. Peter, the entrepreneurial, young man trying to do good for his country by creating the Prosperity Machine, need not have been written as a morally bankrupt asshole. The brothers Jonsson would have done better to write Peter as a sympathetic character, who was just trying to bring prosperity to his fellow citizens without realizing the consequences of his actions. This would have made his ultimate fate more understandable. His brother Alex could have been written as someone who foresaw the potential financial crisis and who left to take a job elsewhere, only to return when he heard the financial collapse had endangered the life of his brothers and their families. Elements of this scenario are already in the script as when Alex says Peter "acted in good faith" and only "wanted everyone to have the good life." As for the internal logic of the fantasy world, why do babies have such a long gestation period, why did the Mayor bronze her uterus and hang it on the wall, and why do some men want shoulder implants while others prefer cuddles? Those aspects of the story need to be better explained and made more internally consistent. It is not enough to be outrageous just for the sake of being outrageous or for a cheap laugh. All that takes place must occur in the context of a well-written story.

The Prosperity Machine enables the government of Elbowville and its banks to give out loans to just about anyone who wants cash and for a while, the country rises on a wave of borrowed wealth. Everyone becomes instantly rich through the magic of easy credit until the tide turns. Inflation causes everything to become more expensive because of all the cash out there chasing a limited number of goods. Mandrake, an out-of-town Bank Examiner, hilariously played by Rick Faugno, then arrives to audit the books and eventually announces that Elbowville's credit rating has been severely downgraded. The government of Elbowville can no longer honor the promissory notes it has issued and they are placed in the position of having to borrow money at a high interest rate to pay off a small portion of its debts, a situation described by Manuela as "needing a loan to pay a loan to pay a loan to pay a loan." Citizens start defaulting on their loan payments resulting in repossessions and general civil unrest. Some pray to Robert Redford (Oh, dear Bob of Hollywood, Protect Us!) while others take to the streets in a bloody revolution. 

At this point, in the last ten minutes of the show, it is very unclear what the ultimate message is. On the one hand, there is a democratic election, where the winner appoints former Mayor Manuela, the cause of the past financial crisis, as Financial Regulator of the new revolutionary government, which looks quite fascist, with flags and security and Manuela standing on the high bridge looking like Eva Peron. Is the message that ignorant citizens will be fooled and will elect leaders from the very same class of professional politicians that caused the financial crisis in the first place or is the message that a right-wing nationalistic government will arise from the ashes as Hitler rose out of the failed Weimar Republic? Even a third scenario is suggested when Alex decides to leave Elbowville given the new fascist government that has taken power. Where is he heading? Galt's Gulch? It is unclear what was intended but the end does leave the audience unsatisfied with respect to outcome and fails to give them closure. 

Revolution In The Elbow Of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter features a cast with extraordinary talent and an excellent soundtrack. This rock musical is artistically and intellectually smart with a message that is insightful and relevant to many financial problems our country faces today. I strongly encourage you to see this show. You will have an enjoyable evening and will leave with a number of interesting questions regarding our current financial system that may haunt you, as well as provide you with insight, for years to come. 

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