Before American Humbug even begins, a young woman, wearing a Victorian dress, invites us into the theater. She encourages us to examine a "museum" of wondrous things: Napoleon's breastplate, a miniature alligator and a dwarfish two-headed mammal. The gallery, modeled after P.T. Barnum's American Museum, is an intellectual freak show: We laugh, because this is obviously not the skeleton of Cleopatra's cat. It's a playful joke, a hoax, a humbug.
When the curtain rises, the fun abruptly ends. Barnum appears, dressed like an upscale carnival barker, and introduces the acts in his ominous vaudeville. First, there's the "oldest woman in America" (actually a middle-aged man). Then, a skit about the evils of alcohol. Finally, a minstrel show -- five full minutes of tasteless puns, spoken by actors dressed as dim-witted black sharecroppers.
As the show unfolds, however, the actors begin to rebel. They laugh at P.T. Barnum, they call him a racist, and they accuse him of birthing a terrible tradition -- the tradition of conning the public to make a quick buck. Barnum's legacy includes Fox News, the War on Terror, bad WMD intelligence, racial profiling ...
Now, wait a minute. P.T. Barnum caused all these things?
As a theorist, playwright Lynne Connor cares deeply about her subject. She feels strongly that P.T. Barnum and his museum started the downfall of American society. And in this Three Rivers Arts Festival production, Connor will not let us disagree: All three "actors" concur that Barnum is the anti-Christ. Democracy is dead, they suggest, and America is deadbeat.
We could dispute this claim. To blame P.T. Barnum for corporate media is like saying that Richard Wagner invented Nazi Germany; both men, after all, loved myth and spectacle, and both were patriotic. But Barnum died years before Rupert Murdoch was born. And as for legacy, how was Barnum more egregious than Henry Ford, Joseph Pulitzer or William Hearst? That debate would be interesting -- nearly as interesting as Barnum's flamboyant, complicated persona.
But debate isn't Connor's aim. She wants to vent her fury about world affairs, in outrageous, didactic terms. The approach is simplistic and insulting. What's the difference between American Humbug and the Fox News it abhors? Humbug is liberal and live. The hoax is on us.
American Humbug continues through June 17. Three Rivers Arts Festival Gallery, 937 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-281-8723 or www.artsfestival.net.