Sheen, Sheehan and Sharpton star in theater of absurd

Posted: Aug 31, 2005 12:00 AM

When Bill Shakespeare observed that life is but a shadow strutting and fretting its hour upon the stage, he must have been imagining Crawford, Texas, circa August 2005.

Indeed, recent events surrounding the war protest led by Cindy Sheehan have added a new dimension to the definition of tragicomedy. Not just tragic, not just comedic, but also ridiculous. The theater of the absurd has found pay dirt in East Texas.

Of course, there's nothing amusing about war, or loss of life, or a mother's pain. But those noble human concerns become something else once the red eye of the television camera finds its mark.

Once a cause becomes a cause celebre, original intent gets lost. Once celebrities attach themselves to tragedy - and the tragic figure herself becomes a celebrity - then authenticity becomes subordinate to calculation. Sorrow's spontaneity evaporates in the media haze and everything thereafter is street theater.

When Cindy Sheehan knelt to place flowers on her son's grave, alone with her pain, she was a sympathetic character whose loss would break a million hearts. When Cindy Sheehan knelt to place flowers next to a stage-prop cross erected for Nikons and networks in Crawford, she was an actress studiously performing for an audience that may easily find other places for their sympathies to repose.

Her supporting cast did her no favors by layering cliches onto what already was becoming a tired script, beginning with - fire up your bongs - Joan Baez.

Having Baez show up for a war protest is like having Oprah show up at a Weight Watchers meeting. You get instant bona fides along with your gratification. With Baez, you get to bask in the real thing - a been-there, done-that star straight from the annals of anger. Speaking to a crowd of about 500, Baez said: "It was the final tear for the overflow and you can't stop running water. Cindy's was the final tear."

Whatever that means. I think something sad and poignant. In any case, Baez's folk singerese seems an improvement over her declamations at a concert last year in Charlottesville, Va., where Baez revealed that she has "multiple personalities," including a 15-year-old poor black girl named Alice from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas.

As reported by Ronald Bailey in Reason magazine, Baez performed what was essentially a minstrel show without the blackface. Young Alice said things like "I'se g'win ta' do this and that, and commented on President George W. Bush.

"De prezident, he be a racist," she said, and, "De prezident, he got a bug fer killin'."

Moving right along, we next come to Al Sharpton and Martin Sheen, both on the short list for supporting actors whenever a protest bubbles up. Sharpton's qualifications seem to be that he's a black man in full plight as well as an activist-at-large. He's also, as Monday's Washington Post noted, "the civil rights activist and former presidential candidate."

No mention that he once also served as mouthpiece for another 15-year-old black girl named Tawana Brawley - one of his other personalities? - who claimed to have been raped by, oh, two to six white men. The story turned out to be a hoax, but not before Sharpton had helped nearly ruin a few lives.

But that was yesterday, and the cameras move on .

To Sheen, who apparently showed up in Crawford because he plays the president of the United States on TV. If the real president won't meet with Cindy Sheehan, the pretend president will. Perhaps in recognition of the bishop, Fulton J. Sheen, upon whom he based his screen name, Sheen gave Cindy Sheehan a crucifix in honor of her Catholic son.

In giving an impression both of a president and a priest, Sheen brought a double scoop of gravitas to the show, sponsored poetically by Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. Wait, make that a triple. Sheen also played a leading role in the Vietnam film "Apocalypse Now."

At a war protest led by the bereaved mother of a Catholic son in media America, one can hardly do better than an actor stage-named for a priest, who plays a popular Democratic president on the heels of a youthful role as a soldier confronted with the insanity of an ill-conceived war.

That would seem to be a wrap, and so it is.

Sheehan leaves Crawford Wednesday, headed for a busy calendar of speaking engagements and a new season of protests, while her audience disperses and the camera's red eye seeks new targets. Me? I'm with Baez's alter ego, Alice, who in another context sagely said: "Seems lak haf' the country be plumb crazy."