Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, July 13, 2008

[Sunday night: Updated with further thoughts below.]

For a long time I felt that the preposterousness of the theft of the 2000 Presidential Election was unsurpassable by satire.

The sheer implausibility of the coincidence of factors that made the theft possible!

It all hinged on Florida, where Bush’s brother, who was the governor, had illegally purged the roles of predominantly African American voters, who favored Gore inordinantly.

It all hinged on Florida and a flawed design of a ballot in Palm Beach County, where a fringe, xenophobic candidate named Patrick Buchanan, who had spoken admiringly of Hitler, received thousands of votes almost certainly intended for Gore, in a jurisdiction with a large Jewish population.

It all hinged on Florida and the charisma of a civic hero -- Ralph Nader -- who put considerable thought and energy into denying the significant differences between Bush and Gore, deliberately courting voters who predominantly would have been predisposed to have voted for Gore otherwise. If only 6/10ths of one percent of Florida Nader voters had pulled the lever for Gore, Gore would have won on the first tally.

It all hinged on Florida and an initial miscount of ballots, which erroneously showed George Bush to have won the state by 547 votes.

It all hinged on a corrupt Supreme Court, including three members appointed by Reagan, whose Vice President was Bush’s father, and two members appointed by Bush’s father, which prevented the State of Florida from completing an accurate count of the votes; in an unprecedented decision, the Court declared its decision to have no authority as a precedent -- they knew that their decision made no legal sense, and they explicitly ordered that its reasoning not serve as precedent for future decisions. (Note: One of Bush’s father’s appointees voted for the accurate counting of votes; the idea that any court would decide against the accurate counting of votes makes my head swim and stomach churn.)

It all hinged on an antiquated, anti-democratic Electoral College, which allows for the possibility of a candidate losing the vote of the people by half a million and still ostensibly winning the election. I say “ostensibly” because an accurate count of the votes showed that Gore won more votes in Florida, despite the Palm Beach ballot confusion, and despite the illegal purging of eligible voters from the roles; and Florida’s electoral votes would have won Gore the Presidency.

Change any one of these factors, and Al Gore would have been inaugurated President in January 2001.

As background, add that the Republicans were willing to lie, cheat, and steal to “win” the election, even going so far as to pay people to stage a riot outside the Miami, Florida, recount office, successfully shutting down an accurate recount. And add that the Republican Party had a propaganda plan to discredit and de-legitimize Gore in the event that he might have won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote. And add a national media so used to propagandizing for Bush’s party and against Gore’s that none of this received the publicity it deserved, while, had the roles been reversed, any one of these factors (with the exception of Nader’s clever campaigning) would have been motivation for months of front page investigations and calls for impeachment by the press.

I’ve always said that this concentration of forces had a preposterous grimness that would have daunted any satirist. But now I’ll have to rethink my position. Because two weeks ago I saw a theatrical presentation of a satire of American Presidential politics that’s more outrageous than what really happened.

Mickle Maher’s play The Strangerer re-stages the first debate of Bush’s reelection campaign, against John Kerry, in light of reports that Bush had read Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, in which a French man murders an Arabic-speaking North African man for no reason. Mickle’s fancy is wild and unpredictable. To spoil a few surprises: Bush’s mother is a zombie, living dead in a casket that Bush takes with him to every hotel room on the campaign trail; John Kerry is a walking, talking somnambulist; and Bush has decided to murder debate moderator Jim Lehrer for no reason on live TV. [End spoilers.]

A blunt description makes it sound sketchy and simple, but it’s rich and strange. Mickle is a powerful, poetic writer (he won a prestigious Hopwood Award for poetry when we were students at the University of Michigan), and he’s written a feast for actors. Guy Massey as Bush -- Mickle wrote the part for him -- is a virtuoso of intensity, comedy, and unexpected pathos. Mickle himself is hilarious as Kerry, and Brian Shaw (no relation) is spot on as Lehrer. (Colm O’Reilly alternates in the role of Lehrer with Shaw; I knew Colm in Chicago, and he is a gifted actor.)

Kerry’s somnambulism in the face of Bush’s rage for murder is a parable for not just the Democratic Party, but for the country as a whole, for all of us, for humanity’s acquiescence in the murderousness of kings. That Mickle has written a teaching play is alluded to in the title, with the extra “er” of Strangerer echoing the difficult-to-pronounce “rer” of Lehrer, which means “teacher.”

But the play is not only a parable of politics, it’s a profound meditation on the theater. Much of the dialog explores and describes the power of the theatrical “moment,” and the play is full of its own powerful moments.

What gives the play its richness is that the theatrical meditations come from the fevered Bush, who is haunted by his mother, by his love of theater, by the acquiescence of Kerry, and by his solitude that is caused by his sense that people perceive him as a cipher not to be listened to but merely to be mocked (if his auditor [nominally] opposes him) or to be already-assumed-to-be-agreed with (if his auditor supports him). The loneliness of the king is a theatrical staple going back at least to Richard III; Mickle’s script and Massey’s acting make it real anew.

I’m haunted by those professional Republican rioters in Miami in late 2000. Bush is the more compelling -- and ultimately more sympathetic -- theatrical character because he wants it -- whatever It is -- more than Kerry, just as those rioters wanted Bush more than Democrats wanted Gore. Desire propels the drama, whether theatrical, political, or plain human. Today the Democrats avoid the drama of impeachment, while Bush lays the groundwork for attacking Iran.

The Strangerer has recently moved from Chicago to off-Broadway, Theater Oobleck’s first show to go off-Broadway after 20 years of original hits in Chicago. I’ve known Mickle since high school and played a lead role in his first full-length play, in 1985 in Ann Arbor; he played a lead role in the only full-length play I wrote, in 1987, also in Ann Arbor; and we were both among the crew that moved to Chicago together and founded Theater Oobleck. He’s written many plays since then; I’ve seen only a few of them and read a couple more. After seeing The Strangerer at its last Chicago weekend two weeks ago, he and I and other friends went out for a beer; afterwards he gave me a ride to my sister’s house, where I was staying. I’m glad to count him as a friend, and I’m delighted that you don’t have to take my word for it when I say his show is terrific. You can read the ecstatic Chicago reviews at Oobleck’s web site. “Beyond brilliant.” “[A] freakish, perfect, hilarious play.” “One of the ten best of 2007.”

If you’re in the New York area, do see the show. It’s hilarious and haunting.

Theater Oobleck
The Strangerer by Mickle Maher
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow St.
New York City
Opens July 9, 2008
Tues-Sat at 7:30pm
Sun at 2:30pm + 7:00pm

Tickets available at
(212) 239-6200 or at the Barrow Street Theatre Box Office

Theater Oobleck
Barrow Street Theatre

* * *

Update, further thoughts, Sunday night: In comments my friend Kerry Reid, a playwright and critic with whom I saw Mickle’s play 2 weeks ago, makes the connection between “teaching play” and Brecht, which -- duh! -- had not occurred to me, even though I studied Brecht years ago -- acted in 4 of his plays, read and saw a bunch more and read a lot of his theoretical texts; and I know Mickle has studied Brecht as well. And since “Lehrer” means teacher and “Lehrstück” (“teaching piece”) is -- I’m pretty sure -- a Brechtian coinage to describe his political/dramatic parables, we might as well go whole Brechtian hog and remember Brecht’s even more central concept of Verfremdungseffekt -- “alienation effect,” or “distanciation,” but a rendering somewhat closer to the root of the German word would be “estrangement effect,” in which the acting style makes the familiar “strange” in order to bring it to our attention -- precisely what Mickle’s play achieves, as it asks, why would the murder of an American broadcaster be more outrageous than the killing of thousands of Iraqis through indiscriminate bombing? In other words, strangerer and strangerer . . .

Brilliant observation on "Lehrer," which I didn't pick up on before. Also of course Brecht's Lehrstuck.

So good to see you, albeit briefly. I hope I'll be able to make a trip out to Seattle in the next year or so, family health stuff permitting.

Be well, my friend!
Dear Kerry (no relation to the character played by Mickle),

Wonderful to see you too!
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