Queer Philly artists stage satirical take on politics

Justin Jain as Melania Trump

It’s a blustery Thursday afternoon in South Philadelphia, and Justin Jain is becoming Pete Buttigieg. The out actor looks and sounds nothing like the openly gay, dark-horse presidential candidate, but he works prodigiously to adopt Buttigieg’s Midwestern mannerisms and homespun charm. From behind a keyboard, Pax Ressler coaches Jain through a musical number that gently parodies Buttigieg’s earnest demeanor and his blue-chip bona fides. This is just another day at the office for the folks behind “This Is The Week That Is.”

Now in its 14th year, “This Is The Week That Is” satirizes politicians, celebrities and everyone in between. The popular revue, a brainchild of 1812 Productions and its artistic director, Jennifer Childs, has become a holiday tradition for many Philadelphians. This year’s iteration runs from Nov. 29 through Jan. 5 at Plays & Players Theater. The performers and writing staff constantly refresh the material based on the evolution of the news cycle, so audiences can never be entirely sure what they’ll see until they’re sitting in their seats.

An impressive stable of local performers have passed the production over the years, with many returning for multiple iterations. Jain — a recent Barrymore Award winner for his performance in InterAct Theatre Company’s “The Great Leap” — is in his fourth year. Out theater artist Dan O’Neil is directing solo for the first time, after spending several seasons as either assistant director or co-director to Childs. Ressler, a nonbinary composer and performer, is the newbie musical director: This is their first year with the company.

Each artist brings their history to the show.

“I’ve been seeing [“This Is The Week That Is”] every year for a decade,” O’Neil told PGN. “It’s always been a part of my holiday tradition, and I’ve had friends who have worked on it every year. So even earlier versions of the show that I didn’t work on have resonated with me, and I have favorite parts and things I remember.”

Jain has seen the revue most years since it launched in 2006. As a performer, he’s embodied everyone from Kim Jong-un to Melania Trump.

“It’s been nice to follow the progression of the show,” Jain said. “To be a part of a lineage is really exciting.”

Ressler had only seen one previous iteration of “This Is The Week That Is,” so coming on board as both a performer and music director required them to jump off the deep end with both feet.

“I knew very little about the process of making the show,” they said. “I’m seeing how the sausage gets made and learning a lot.”

Making the sausage requires the performers and writers to meticulously comb newspapers and watch hours of punditry on CNN and MSNBC. The process can be exhausting, especially in times of turmoil and upheaval. It also requires devising contingency plans when something goes awry.

O’Neil described an instance during the 2015 production, which coincided with the Republican presidential primary, when a candidate’s sudden departure from the race threw the material into chaos.

“We had Justin playing Bobby Jindal, who dropped out of the race during tech,” he said, referring to the point in the rehearsal process when the show was in its final stages before reaching an audience. “We were like, ‘Oh, great! We need a new wig, and we’re going to rewrite the whole thing.’ Justin ended up playing Rand Paul in that sketch. It can be very stressful.”

“And it could totally happen again this year,” Ressler added with a wry laugh.

The show’s set-up allows the creative team to highlight the full range of stories happening at any given time. The first act features sketches, parodies and musical numbers, while the second act is comprised almost entirely of a satirical news broadcast. In the vein of a Trevor Noah or Stephen Colbert, actor Sean Close sits behind a desk and lampoons everything from impeachment headlines to human interest stories.

Balance is key, according to Jain.

“You find that a big heavy issue can work in the news section, particularly when it’s just Sean doing the news, he said. “It’s not too different from SNL doing the news. That space allows us a little more leeway to go a bit farther and push the envelope. You might find something small and light in the news and try to make that shine a little brighter. This year, we’re doing a big spotted lanternfly sketch, which is really exciting.”

As music director, Ressler’s job is to help realize the ambitions of the writers and performers, while working within a familiar structure. 

“It’s always a moving target,” they said. “We have to insert our parody lyrics onto an existing song, and we have to work within an opening number that’s been done for 14 years now. Music is rigid, and what we want to say is verbose. To fit what we want to say into something you can count off in four is a challenge, but it’s really satisfying when we get it right.”

Even though audience members are saturated in politics throughout their daily lives, the performers hope this year’s show will help them laugh about a somewhat stressful topic.

“I feel more clearly and strongly every year that I hope our work lets 200 strangers get in a room together and laugh and think about what is happening,” O’Neil said. “I think the communal experience of watching the show with a bunch of strangers is so powerful and is a force for creating empathy.”

“We want people walking away entertained and feeling the year is ending on a good note, as opposed to jumping to the bad,” Jain continued. “We don’t always take time to celebrate what is truly bright. This year more than other years, we’re really pointing signs at coming together and reaching across the aisle.”

“The community that people can experience together is maybe why it should be a live theater piece, rather than something you watch alone,” Ressler said. “Being in the room together and creating a sense of community as they watch the show is integral to what we do.”

“This Is The Week That Is” runs from Nov. 29 through Jan. 5, 2020, at Plays & Players Theater. For tickets and information, visit https://www.1812productions.org/this-is-the-week-that-is-2019.