BWW Review: STRANGERER Things on Stage at The Catastrophic Theatre

2006. Crawford, TX. President George W. Bush added Albert Camus‘ THE┬áSTRANGER to his summer reading list. The media had a field day, or its equivalent at the time (social media was still in its infancy), questioning his motives, trying to understand why the President would select – and publicize – his reading of a French existentialist’s short literary work, most frequently consumed by college freshman.

Was he sending a goodwill message to the French, whom he’d generally dismissed throughout his presidency at that time? Could he identify with the volume’s themes of angst and anxiety, along with the story of a regular man led to senseless murder? Maybe he just wanted a quick read on the ranch? We’ll never know for sure, but to our great benefit, playwright Mickle Maher was inspired by Bush’s choice, leading to THE STRANGERER.

George W. Bush has an axe to grind. Or rather, a gun to shoot, a pillow with which to smother, and a vial of cyanide, among other murderous weapons. Our 43rd president wants nothing more than to kill PBS anchor Jim Lehrer. He wants to do it on stage, live before a national audience of millions, during a presidential debate against his opponent, Senator John Kerry, who, in an unexpected act of bipartisanship, agrees that Lehrer should die.

It would behoove me to stop there, but please be assured that THE STRANGERER is more than what it seems. Superficially, it’s a farcical one-act about a president who wants to kill a newsman and his quest to understand why. But just like Camus’ novel, this absurdist play is really about the philosophical intersection between death and the meaning of life, an existential study on intentions. It’s also shocking, bizarre, and hysterically funny.

The Catastrophic Theatre first mounted THE STRANGERER in 2008. Ten years later, Catastrophic wisely reunited the original cast, as the company celebrates a decade of producing Maher’s work.

As the show progressed, I realized that I was slowly inching forward to the edge of my seat, eagerly anticipating the next absurdity. Director Charlie Scott is responsible for said poor posture. He stays true to Maher’s original script, clearly delighting in the character’s peculiarities and the deeper philosophical meaning. It’s clear that Scott wants you to enjoy yourself. He wants you to laugh, fully understanding that such a release will lessen the tension created by some very unfunny and occasionally incomprehensible actions by the characters on stage. Scott magically creates a safe space for audiences to be equally perplexed and amused. Best of all, you don’t have to be a student of philosophy or a pseudo-intellectual to really enjoy THE STRANGERER. You just have to be someone who is open to challenging ideas. Hats off to you, Mr. Scott.

I was shocked when Paul Locklear (George W. Bush) walked onto the stage; I gasped the first time he spoke. It’s as if ‘Dubya,’ in addition to painting, decided all of a sudden to take up acting, performing in local absurdist theatre about himself (how very meta and very Maher of a twist to behold). Locklear’s command of Bush is staggering. He nails 43’s pauses, posture and scowls, playing it frighteningly true to the man himself. Most notably, Locklear’s Bush is more than just funny. His “enthusiastical” and deeply “satisfictional” near constant malapropisms make his role as protagonist and chief truth revealer all the more potent. It was a joy to watch Locklear in this part.

The unflappable, deeply disimpassioned Jim Lehrer is played by Se├ín Patrick Judge, who is also currently performing the same role in JIM LEHRER AND THE THEATER AND ITS DOUBLE AND JIM LEHRER’S DOUBLE. Judge’s restraint, particularly when set against Locklear’s “theatricausations,” is both startling and utterly convincing. Best known as a “seasoned, even-handed member of the press,” Lehrer is comedically stoic, even when Bush attacks his opponent, claiming that “killing the ‘modulator’ of the debate is not a priority of Kerry.” Troy Schulze is well-cast as Senator John Kerry. Though his look isn’t dead on (that would require a mask or extensive prosthetics), he nails Kerry’s voice and general presence with precision. This really is the Dubya show; Locklear as Bush steals every scene, however Schulze’s minimal part is played to the hilt, as stiff and straight-laced as you’d imagine Kerry in such a situation, provided that the situation was BLACK MIRROR and Kerry had gone completely insane due to sleep-deprivation.

It would be easy for Locklear, Judge and Schulze to cross over into mockery, to present their characters as caricatures. But the absurdity of it all, combined with the layered, thoughtful struggle of Bush trying to articulate his actions and ascribe meaning to what appears senseless, grounds the production.

The Catastrophic Theatre consistently selects teams who deliver greatness. Standouts in this production are Hudson Davis (lighting design) and Shawn St. John (sound design). Without their genius, the show would falter beyond recognition.

THE STRANGERER is as ambitious conceptually as it is comedically. It’s not a show for the faint of heart, nor is it suitable for proper, traditional, or humorless Houstonians. Without question, this production will send a shock wave through your system. After the show, I overheard audience members asking each other, “Did they actually just do that?” YES! Resounding yes. And you’ll be better off because of it.