After slogging through more than 20 mind-numbing, sometimes crushing, debates this election season, I wasn’t sure I was really going to make it to a play supposedly based on the 2004 Kerry/Bush debate. Frankly, I found the stump sputters in the last debate so painful I switched to watching Entourage. Between idiotic sound crumbs, incoherent mutterings, and dismembered sentences, the sheer violence to language has been nearly unbearable for even the toughest word wonks.
In the end, I think it was Albert Camus that actually got me in the car that night to watch The Catastrophic Theatre’s production of Mickle Maher’s The Strangerer. Who among us wasn’t a tad concerned when they heard that W had selected Camus’ famous novel as vacation reading? Just how loopy is that White House librarian? To think that Camus, the man that did not believe in God yet was not an atheist, would enter W’s gray matter is too large a brain tangle to fathom. Not so for Maher, who re-imagines the debates as one long existentialist (of the French variety) rant.
The Strangerer starts off believable enough with Jim Lehrer in the moderator’s seat. The candidates enter, looking more or less like their characters, and Lehrer launches into this first question. It’s hysterically funny in its pitch perfectness. Then the lights dim, shadows emerge, 1960s Western TV music comes on, and W proceeds to stab Lehrer between the shoulder blades. Lights back up, Lehrer composes himself, and the debates continue until the lights dim again. You get the picture. After a stabbing, shooting, and attempted pillow suffocation, W begins his existential unfolding. Imagine tugging a loose thread on a knitted sweater and you will get the feel for the deftness of W’s unraveling. He speaks of looking for the perfect theatrical moment in a post-apocalyptic Coral Gables, Florida. Held captive by his dead mother, he tries to escape to watch a play amidst his profound musings on the best way to off Lehrer. Maher’s language is rich, deliciously thick, and peppered with the kind of Bushisms that the late Molly Ivins would cherish. W’s meltdown veers toward the poetic at times. It’s funny and horrific, brutal and absurd, mostly all at once. Kerry has his own undoing which has to do with sleep, which he falls into often. Somnambulism seems an apt choice here.
Sean Patrick Judge (Lehrer), Paul Locklear (Bush) and Troy Schulze (Kerry) deliver pointed, spot-on performances, demonstrating a mastery of mannerisms that never descends into full-out parody.
Judge nails Lehrer’s modulated tone, Locklear, W’s good ol’ boyness, and Schulze, Kerry’s wooden gestures. The production, directed by Catastrophic Theatre’s Artistic Director Jason Nodler, is the sharpest thus far from this newish troupe. Jodi Bobrovsky’s immaculately slick debate arena comes complete with red astroturf and sterile lecterns. DiverseWorks has never looked so scary. Kirk Markley’s harsh blue lights capture the fake stage debate atmosphere exactly while Chris Bakos’ sound design lends just enough eeriness to know that we have left reality as we know it.
The debate finally ends, Lehrer gives W his favorite knife, and the two exit leaving Kerry, the zombie, alone on stage. He finally emerges from his slumber to relay the contents of his dream. It’s dark, murky, incomprehensible, yet we follow every word like the last thread to come undone. The Strangerer concludes on an enormously unsettling note. Feels about right for all that hangs in the balance.