Paul Locklear gives uncanny performance as President Bush

Move over, Josh Brolin.

Step aside, Will Ferrell.

Houston actor Paul Locklear makes the role of George W. Bush uniquely his own with his hilarious yet strangely sympathetic portrayal in Catastrophic Theatre's The Strangerer.

Mickle Maher's political satire, a surreal reimagining of the first of Bush's 2004 debates with John Kerry, is in its final week at DiverseWorks.

"As I've told my Republican friends, it's not a Bush-bashing play," Locklear says. "A few days into rehearsal, I found myself liking the character. Actually, he comes off better than Kerry."

Locklear, who looks a bit like Bush to begin with, has mastered the president's trademark idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, delivery and verbal misadventures.

"A few weeks into rehearsal," director Jason Nodler recalls, "when Paul first truly crossed over, I seriously thought I was hallucinating. It was like Bush was in the room. And not only that, but I was feeling real empathy for him."

The script includes many authentic-sounding Bush-isms, such as "decapulate" and "the middle-evil times."

"One of my favorites," Locklear volunteers, "is when he says, 'We have to remember history so that we can repeat it.' "

One of the most memorable moments is Locklear's virtuosic delivery of a complicated speech in which Bush tries to describe his tortured thought-to-speech process — replete with strangulated what's-he-trying-to-say? pauses, which Locklear times masterfully.

"It was hard to get that (scene) just right," Locklear says. "Jason helped a lot, giving me the freedom to get completely lost in those moments."

Locklear says it's not just the laughs that make Maher's Bush sympathetic.

"I think it's mainly because he has Bush earnestly striving to create a true theatrical moment." We can overlook the fact he's trying to achieve that by killing debate moderator Jim Lehrer — since all his attempts prove no more effective than Wile E. Coyote's campaign against the Roadrunner.

Celebrating his 20th year on Houston stages (he began in a 1988 Main Street Theater production of She Loves Me), Locklear was a regular at Catastrophic's precursor, Infernal Bridegroom Production. He also has written and performed for other companies, including Unhinged Productions and the tongue-in-cheekily titled late-night outfit Brazosport Laser Panthers. His day job is writing and editing information briefs for an aviation security firm.

Strangerer is not Locklear's first brush with Bush. He previously voiced the role in a puppet play and enacted the president in several brief comic skits.

"It began a few years ago," Locklear says. "I was visiting my parents when my mom looked at me and said, 'You know, you not only look like him (Bush), but you have a lot of his mannerisms."

Little wonder when Nodler became interested in doing Strangerer, he asked Locklear to read the script.

"By the time I got to page 15," Locklear says, "I was laughing so hard I had to put the script down."

The biggest challenge, he says, was keeping a straight face the first time they had an audience.

"It was very tempting to get giggly with it, but I had to get over that. He's got to stay serious."