City Paper is not for tourists
Andy Baroch had a pencil sharpener shaped like the Washington Monument in one hand, and a hammer in the other.
As he pummeled the tiny obelisk into the grass by the Capitol Reflecting Pool, the hammer’s head flew off. The mini-monument stayed intact, though covered in dirt. “This gives me no pleasure,” he said, as the remaining audience dissipated.
Baroch was concluding his Capital Fringe Festival show Secrets of the National Mall, which was classified as “storytelling” in the 2014 festival guide (although within the larger “drama” section) and described thusly: “Radio news reporter reveals the secrets of the Freemasons, the underground fraternal organization which designed the National Mall. Join his walking tour to hear the shocking truth!”
Few audiences would get to. After the first weekend, tickets for Secrets of the National Mall were no longer available for purchase on the Fringe website, even though it had originally been scheduled for 22 performances, more than any other show in the festival. Was it simply too fringe for Fringe?
Thirteen people, myself included, assembled at the Capitol Reflecting Pool at 7 p.m. on the first Friday of the festival. They’d paid $17 for the privilege, in addition to the mandatory $7 button required for entry to any Fringe venue ($5 if you bought it early enough). I got to go for free, because I was reviewing it for Fringeworthy. Baroch, our ostensible tour guide, had us sit in the grass with a clear view of the Washington Monument. It was time to explain why the National Mall is actually the largest hieroglyph in the world.
“What is it?” he asked us in a deep baritone, gesturing at the Washington Monument. “What is it?”
The audience threw out ideas—an obelisk? No. A penis? Nope.
“It’s a dildo,” said Baroch.
Over 90 minutes, we learned that this isn’t just any dildo, but one that represents the ancient procreation myth of Isis, the Egyptian goddess, whose husband Osiris was cut into 14 pieces. A fish ate his phallus, and Isis had to create a dildo to reproduce and restore the natural order.
Baroch has a problem with this giant dildo at the National Mall. It means our monument is actually a lie—an ode to a pagan goddess dressed up as an edifice to a Founding Father. Baroch found the whole charade unconstitutional to boot, because our tax dollars paid for it despite our separation of church and state.
We never got up from that spot by the Capitol Reflecting Pool. This walking tour would not include any walking. (Baroch later told me that this was Fringe’s suggestion, because audience members might prefer sitting down to walking in the July heat. Fringe wouldn’t comment. And on the official website, the description’s “walking tour” was changed to “storytelling.”)
Baroch instead turned the pages in a big black book of clippings, as old articles, pictures, and maps fell into the grass. He scribbled designs on a well-worn pad of paper, and at times on the back of his hand. He cited from memory the height of different buildings and monuments, adding up each of the numerals: “One and one and one is three, two and four and seven is one, one.” In the end, all of the heights added up to one, one, one, which is three, the natural order divined by the Freemasons—the sacred triangle.
The Freemason Fraternal Order counts some of America’s most famous historical figures as members—including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe, Paul Revere, and Andrew Jackson, among others.The Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia, the order of Masons in Washington, boasts on its website that “the Masonic stamp is visible throughout the city of Washington, DC, the surrounding metropolitan area, and the entire country.”
Baroch’s journey into Mason iconography began when he looked at a map of the U.S. Capitol property around four years ago and noticed that it resembled an owl. Suddenly he was seeing owls all over D.C. He acknowledges he had read the novel The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown, a more common entrance point into the world of Freemasonry, but “it didn’t do anything for me,” because while it featured Masons, it didn’t explain them.
Baroch showed the audience a map of the Mall and, indeed, it has the same shape as an owl, if you look at it a certain way. The owl, according to Baroch, is another sign of Isis. A tourist map of the Mall cuts off the owl at its eyes.
Baroch has a background as a journalist, most recently working at Voice of America for more than two decades. He was eager to share the many sources he used to piece together his findings. But after Baroch flipped through the big black book for about 35 minutes, the audience started to turn.
“He gave the impression he wanted questions,” one attendee, Dan Kreske, told me later. “But he didn’t want any questions.” And, Kreske recalls, Baroch accused one of the other audience members of being a Mason.
“I kept thinking he was gonna say, ‘Just kidding,’ that he was antagonizing the audience on purpose and had people planted in the audience as Masons,” Kreske said. “That’s why I didn’t leave.”
Ultimately, five members of the crowd exited early, including the alleged Mason. Two of them explicitly stormed off, accusing Baroch of cafeteria-picking evidence to support his theories.
The issue seemed to me like a disconnect—Baroch thought people didn’t believe his many researched facts about Freemasons and owls. Audience members wanted to know why it mattered.
“The issue at hand is the secrecy of it,” Baroch maintained. “Why don’t they tell us about this?”
When it all ended, Baroch asked how I thought he did. I told him it was “captivating and compelling.” I meant it. I had never experienced anything like that. The tour was clearly not for everyone, and my Fringeworthy review, posted the next day, was a pretty straightforward if cynical recounting of what happened during those 90 minutes. I concluded that the performance “is not a tour of the National Mall so much as it is a tour of Baroch’s mind. As the crowd dwindles, it becomes clear that not everyone is up for the journey.”
That Monday, I received a note from City Paper’s editor, Mike Madden. Baroch had read my review, and he was not pleased. In a number of emails and voicemails to City Paper, he expressed concerns that I didn’t show proper reverence for history (and also that I’d egged him on when he asked whether he should hammer the obelisk into the grass—a moment that didn’t make it into the review). He also had a factual problem with one paragraph, in which I wrote, “It’s clear also that he has a scab to pick with the Library of Congress, which wouldn’t let him become a tour guide after he focused too much on the imagery of the Sacred Eye. ‘Do I think the Masons are running the Library of Congress?’ he ponders. ‘No. I just think all of these coincidences are awfully strange.’”
According to Baroch, he had a disagreement with one educator at the Library of Congress docent program, which he detailed during the tour. But he wanted to clarify that the head of volunteer services called him afterward to apologize and invite him back. While he graduated the docent course in December 2013, he declined a position as a guide there because he needed a paying job, he says.
I called the Library of Congress, though the head of volunteer services was in Europe for the week. A week later, Library of Congress spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg told me, “We do not comment on personnel matters related to either staff or volunteers.”
* * *
Around the time Baroch was waging a battle against my review, he was also fighting the Fringe Festival itself.
The Secrets of the National Mall page on the Fringe website had a note saying, “Tickets are no longer available through Capital Fringe for this event.” The July 13 evening performance had been the final one with tickets sold through Fringe. The tour didn’t make it past the first weekend. “The show was canceled…just canceled,” said Laura Gross, the festival’s spokeswoman. She didn’t elaborate.
I wrote to Baroch, who emailed that a representative of Fringe told him that “‘a lot of people wanted refunds.’ After five presentations, well, that isn’t a lot of people. Also, she said people were upset that it wasn’t a walking tour.”
He went on, “There were Masons in the audiences. Did they ask for refunds? Did they pressure her?”
You don’t hear about many shows getting cut from the massive Fringe festival, even though it’s largely uncurated. Fringe accepts participants on a first-come, first-served basis. As long as would-be presenters can pay an application fee and then the participation fee (for Baroch, who found his own venue, $475), they’re in. The name of the festival says it all: These are works at the edge—of form, of production, and, sometimes, of ideas. You go to Fringe to take a risk. If audiences are disappointed, isn’t that on them?
A week later, at a “How to Fringe” workshop at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Capital Fringe CEO Julianne Brienza was asked by an attendee why a show might be cancelled. “Death of family or friends, illness, people didn’t get their visas, basically stuff outside of our control,” she said. “Most shows are canceled because of cast members dropping out.” After the workshop, I pointed out that Secrets of the National Mall fit none of these reasons. All she said was, “We just had to cancel it.” When I told her the explanation Baroch had related to me, she said, “With the tenor of the discussion, we’re just saying it was canceled.”
Talking to fellow audience members, it was clear some of them walked away pissed off. “It was hostile,” said Michelle (she asked that I not use her last name), who was also at the show I saw. “Even though we were sitting in a very open space, it started to feel very claustrophobic”
In fact, I found no one who felt neutral about their time with Baroch. Though they were weirded out by the experience, he had struck a nerve. Days later, they were still thinking about dildos and Masons and the Sacred Triangle, and wondering if he was serious or if the whole thing was a performance.
It’s too bad his show wasn’t actually a drama like the plays it was grouped with, because it did exactly what a good drama is supposed to do. It lingered.
* * *
When I tell Baroch I’m looking into his show’s cancellation, he invites me on another tour. We meet again at the Capitol Reflecting Pool. This time he dresses up, in a checkered blazer and pants. He brings me a flower, which he later tells me was another symbol for Isis. After walking around the Peace Monument, we sit on a bench right by the street. Instead of a big black book of clippings, he has a medium-sized red book.
I tell him I had called up the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia. Grand Master, Most Worshipful Brother James T. Feezell was unavailable, so I spoke with Grand Secretary Joseph Crociata. “Any imputations of underground or conspiratorial influence is completely bogus,” Crociata said. “We’re a fraternity who also does charity work.”
I asked Crociata if the symbol of the owl meant anything to him. “Not at all.”
Baroch isn’t surprised. “I was at the docent class with an elderly Mason who was very sweet,” he says. “When the evaluator mentioned that there was an Egyptian root to Freemasonry he shot out of his chair, suddenly defensive.”
Freemasons don’t even tell some of their own about their connection to Egyptian mythology, Baroch says, but their secret is hidden in plain sight.
He shows me an aerial map of Southwest D.C., and then draws lines from the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol Building to the White House and the Jefferson Memorial. He’s right—with the highlighting from his permanent markers, it looks like a fish.
“It’s really supposed to be a fish that harkens back to the ancient mysteries of ancient Egypt and the doctrine of the Master Masons. That omission from the average person is deception,” he says. “We haven’t lived up to our promise to make this an open society. Hidden among everything is a secret Masonic theme park.”
At the end of our conversation, we walk toward Independence Avenue. “See these triangles?” he says. He’s referring to three small, flat black triangles in the grass. “Why are they there?”
I ask if he would wonder about them if they were squares.
“No,” he says.
Press photo of Andy Baroch via Capital Fringe