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The plot of this year's "Saturday's Voyeur," Salt Lake Acting Company's annual irreverent musical satire, has been compromised by Russian connections, including a starring turn by Vladimir Putin himself.
This edition has a sassy, in-your-face title, "The Sh*t Show," and a spy-versus-spy plot line, with music inspired by "Mission: Impossible" and James Bond themes. Against a national backdrop, the comedy will spotlight familiar Utah characters and scenes, including visits to Rep. Jason Chaffetz's office and a Utah state liquor store.
For Eb Madson, playing the Russian president has landed him in the spotlight of the theater company's marketing campaign, which means his character appears shirtless on buses all over town. The single actor hopes it will translate into dates.
In public, Putin notably appears stern and emotionless, so at first Madson considered a deadpan characterization, almost like a Russian Steven Wright. "But as I continued to build his character, he has turned into a proud lion sex symbol, with similar characteristics to Gru from 'Despicable Me,' " Madson says.
The actor is a five-year veteran of the show whose past notable characters include the devilish Sister Luci and the Angel Moroni, who happened to be a pot-smoking party animal.
"Putin and Moroni are really different in their energies," Madson adds, making the kind of absurd comparison that "Voyeur" fans might appreciate. "Moroni is more laid-back and only really wants to party and have a good time, whereas Putin is the party."
So far, the @realDonaldTrump twitter feed has earned stage mentions, but a caricature of the president isn't in the script. But "Voyeur" boasts a summerlong run through Aug. 27 so there's a chance for a bit of headline-based improvisation, says Justin Ivie, who perfected Trump's distinctive lip-thrusting pout for last year's satirical romp.
Among the characters Ivie is playing this year is a Russian spy named Olga who is 6-foot-3 in her platform heels a fitting stature for the actor who, in previous "Voyeurs," has often embodied Brigham Young.
Mentioning President Trump prompts questions about this year's particular "Voyeur" challenge: How do you make a liberal comedy under a Republican administration that causes some Democrats to pine for the Bush years?
Director Cynthia Fleming offers this kind of understated answer: The "Voyeur" audience is yearning for a cathartic experience, especially this year, she says.
But at a time when satire has become the language of the zeitgeist, it's a challenge to make "Voyeur" fresh. "Usually theater is all about taking something and then really doing something weird to draw meaning from it," says Dan Larrinaga, who is returning to "Voyeur" after a 15-year break to play a Trump voter locked in a liquor store. "Here it's, how do you take these 'I can't believe it's happening' moments and make it entertaining?"
Even as longtime "Voyeur" writers Al Nevins and Nancy Borgenicht delivered drafts of the script, plot points were outpaced by breaking news, such as when Chaffetz announced his resignation.
"Trying to stay in the moment is the challenge because the crazy cycle has accelerated," Ivie says. "It feels like we have to be even more outlandish to still feel like we're making something cartoony."
Or to put it another way: Ivie says he keeps reading real news stories about events that two years ago he might have labeled a "Voyeur" scene.
"I think the magic of this script is that we make light of what has been a crazy, and often painful, five months without giving No. 45 any real stage time," says Cassandra Stokes-Wylie, a Utah-trained actor who is returning home from New York City to make her "Voyeur" debut. Among the characters she plays are Bette Bogus, a fake news reporter, and a Russian call girl.
This year's ripped-from-the-headlines musical features three scenes: Act 1, set on the day after the U.S. presidential election; Act 2, set the day after Trump's inauguration; and Act 3, set at Mar-a-Loco on a milestone day of his presidency.
The play includes cameos from politicians such as Chaffetz and Utah's "never-ending senator," Orrin Hatch, as well as women's marchers adorned in those iconic pink pussy hats, denizens of a state-run liquor store, and a chorus of Trumpkins.
In addition, the show features a rare joint appearance by all three of Trump's wives, who harmonize on a "Kinky Boots" song, "The History of Wrong Guys," transformed into "Bad Choices."
Framing the scenes are cover lyrics ripped from the verses of Don McLean's 1970s classic, "American Pie," "Voyeurized" into "American Lie."
"I can't remember if I cried, when I read about how much he lied," sings Fleming in an interview, adding a line from the later post-inauguration scene: "We heard the Mo-Tabs sing real cute, the day the music died."
Which brings us to another Utah moment featuring Ivie's Olga, who is the Chaffetz enforcer among the Russian circle surrounding Trump. "She finds herself in the middle of Salt Lake City, Utah, and she's befuddled by everything around her, except there's a certain repression in the air that feels like home," Ivie says.
Perhaps a perfect sendup of Utah culture, in typical "Voyeur"-style.
Saturday's Voyeur 2017: 'The Sh*t Show'
The Salt Lake Acting Company presents its 39th annual musical satire, viewing national events through a Utah frame.
When • Opens Friday and continues through Aug. 27: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday
Additional performances • Tuesday, Aug. 15, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 26, 2 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $45-$55 (group discounts for 10 or more); 801-363-7522. Cabaret seating available. Theatergoers are invited to bring their own alcohol and picnic food.
More info • saltlakeactingcompany.org