The Tragicomic Brilliance of Jeff Ahern’s Improvisational Satire, Sylus 2024!


theSpace @ Surgeons Hall
Aug 23-27 (15:00)


For me, the Fringe, for all its achievements, is a kind of an unintentional ritualistic critique of capitalism. On an hourly basis throughout the festival, it’s not unusual to see some of the world’s best comedians and satirists – with perfectly finessed acts they have spent all year crafting, and with their life savings mercilessly gobbled up in exchange for a slot at the festival – performing their act in a squalid, miserable little room that wouldn’t look out of place in a crack den, and often in front of a five-pack of bemused Swedish tourists who were threatened with free tickets on their way to grab some lunch. The exchange rate very often feels off. But as noted in recent reviews, that’s what makes it also exciting. You never know what kind of jewels lie behind each door. Having bought my ticket an hour before the show, I’m delighted to have seen Jeff Ahern’s Sylus 2024!, which is in my opinion is not just the best show I saw this year at the Fringe, but the best show I’ve ever seen at the festival.

After my experience of witnessing great comics performing at the Fringe in what I can only describe as shacks with fairy lights, Ahern’s Sylus 2024! was luckily held in a neat little theatre, with U.S. election-styled bunting hanging over the tops of the stage. Unfortunately (for Ahern, not myself), when I saw the show, only six people had turned up that day to see his show. Regardless, nothing quite prepared me for the absolute majesty of the next 45 minutes.

Ahern, in a full American flag-styled suit, comes onstage as the evil Sylus Rothschild – the evilest man in the world – to announce his bid for the presidency. After being dazzled by his loud suit, the second thing you notice about Ahern is his incredibly quick wit and receptivity to the room. After announcing his presidential bid and handing out campaign badges to the five of us in the audience, he boasts that, with the six of us behind his campaign, he will be unstoppable. Seconds after realising he miscounted, a sixth audience member comes into the show, delivering Ahern another gem for his stump speech: “See, folks? I promised you six audience members and I delivered!” An early victory for Rothschild’s disturbing little campaign, and one impeccably delivered by Ahern.

In terms of structure, the show is primarily divided by two elements: Rothschild’s stump speech and his backstage conversations with an unfortunate looking puppet called “Nessie”, who acts as a mix of the candidate’s best (or maybe, only) friend and a senior campaign advisor for his bid for the presidency. Between portions of his barnstorming stump speech, Rothschild would depart from one side of the theatre, go behind the curtains, and then re-enter the stage on the other side with Nessie in hand – and the show would depict them collaborating their thoughts on how the speech and campaign is going. As the show progresses, his development of Rothschild’s cruel, warped stump speech, complemented by the exposition of his backstage conversations with Nessie, bursts with dizzying comic energy.

Between bouts of Nessie being hilarious as a bemused onlooker of Rothschild’s psychotic campaign (“You do realise you just admitted to murdering your father on live TV, right?”), he also functions as a voice of reason for the candidate. With Rothschild rushing ahead in the polls, Nessie prophetically reminds him throughout the show, “Don’t take any money from special interests.” Rothschild glibly reassures him, but his advisor’s warning hangs in the air as the candidate begins to smell victory ahead.

Jeff Ahern as “Sylus Rothschild” and his close friend, campaign advisor and voice of reason, “Nessie”. Source: Broadway World

The key motifs of Rothschild’s campaign and the overall show are delivered by the audience and promptly responded to by Ahern in a biting comic wit. In one portion of his act, he delivers a six-minute treatise on the “famous” tale of Winston Churchill and the chimpanzee, an absolutely dazzling waltz of improvisation borne initially from the candidate’s requests to the audience to provide a general historical figure and an example of a wild animal. As he dives into brilliantly wretched detail about a young and abused Winston Churchill who comes to embrace the primeval nature of himself through the wild beast, Rothschild routes back to his audience that he will likewise do the same in his campaign. He implores them: “Let me be your chimpanzee.”

Likewise, the campaign’s slogan is delivered by an initially hesitant audience member: “We Will Win.” The audience contributions subsequently resulted in numerous, brilliant moments. The major political scandal Rothschild has to endure is “crying in public”, followed by him choosing popstar Madonna as his vice-presidential candidate. And amid falling poll numbers, Rothschild resuscitates his campaign by declaring “a war on half-empty crisp packets”. The absurdity of these audience suggestions is handled astonishingly well by Ahern, and promptly peppered with brilliant moments of improvisation. And the structure of the show means it is difficult for this material to be recycled. It provides a different stump speech every day, a momentous achievement in itself. As I sat in the back of the show roaring with laughter, I couldn’t help but feel a little self-conscious, and wished for more people to be at the show to delve alongside myself into Rothchild’s political fever dream. Certainly a show as rich as this deserves in my opinion a much, much bigger audience.


THE MUMBLE’S NUMBER ONE PICK OF THE FRINGE 2022


This review could very easily, and exclusively, chronicle Ahern’s straight political themes in the show, such as his artful toying with the artificial qualities of mainstream presidential rhetoric, but I think to do that would be a major dishonor to Sylus 2024! In my opinion, the emotional, and meaningful heart of the show functions as a narrative about a presidential candidate who falls short of his ideals, namely his hope to reform the sclerotic healthcare system in the United States. For all of his severe faults, there are glimpses of real humanity in the character of Rothschild.

However, this dream inevitably collides with the temptation – as Nessie forewarns – to open up his political campaign to an increasingly irresistible melody of special interest funding. As the show progresses, this funding spirals closer to Rothschild as his bid for the presidency takes him increasingly closer to the White House.

Ahern offers massive laughs through Sylus 2024!, but he offers more than that. Wielding audience suggestions within the tapestry of an improvised stump speech is not just impressive, but he does it with the delicacy and majesty of a seasoned political operative, and one keenly aware of the bolts and wheels of the format. Most contemporary audiences will be used to a presidential persona following into the Trumpian strongman archetype, but the show is far too clever to go for obvious targets. Instead, Rothschild seems more like a young city Democrat, and one hampered by his slippery moral compass and a desperately narrow path to the presidency polluted with the stench of establishment donors. The end result of this is that behind the comic ugliness of Rothschild’s character and the hilarity of his unending rhetorical vomit, lies an extraordinary crafted emotional narrative about a deranged but faintly decent and subsequently disillusioned political figure. In doing so, it offers up a kind of David Simon-on-ketamine mini epic on political language.

One thing I’ve found often sinks the efficacy of some satire is when it becomes either emotionally void or just detached altogether from the people it criticizes. In contrast, through the comic vehicle of Rothschild, there is a really strong emotional foundation that complements all the various cogs and wheels of the show, especially when the audience is invited to steer the show through their own exclusive suggestions. So as brilliantly ridiculous as Ahern’s show is – and believe me, it gets pretty far out there – what makes it stunning as a piece of improvisational satire is that it is incredibly layered. Sylus 2024! is awash with all kinds of insane, cartoonish references, but the complex portrait of Rothschild – in assistance with Nessie – ensures that the show had a real heart to it, and it was something that I thought worked beautifully while also being brilliantly, effortlessly funny.

While making sure to avoid spoilers, the finale of the show is held on the eve of the presidential election; with Rothschild and Nessie chatting away to each other, the votes begin to roll in across the states. Ahern delivers what I can only describe as a completely sobering conclusion to the character of Rothschild. Perhaps the best way to put it is that, for a 33-year old man who has watched a lot of really grim political and cultural content in my time, I found myself almost moved to tears by the final scene between Rothschild and his kind-hearted catastrophe of a puppet Nessie. The symbolism is painted in broad strokes here, but it’s beautifully delivered as a piece of theatrical performance. For me, the finale of the show delivers potentially the greatest, culminating testament to Ahern’s skills as a satirist. For a 45-minute show as tight as Sylus 2024!, you can’t help but pay tribute to that kind of emotional timbre.

For a satirist to operate on all of these different levels – an improvised, living breathing monster of a stump speech delivered within a corrupted but still somewhat well-meaning political personality, who is then delivering this through a deranged but subtly moral satire of American politics – was for me astounding to watch. And also hysterically funny, to the point that my jaw ached when the show ended. Ahern has delivered something truly incomparable and absolutely beautiful and uproariously funny through Sylus 2024!, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Jamie Nixon

J

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