Theater review: A ‘Strangerer’ view of George W. Bush

Consider Sisyphus. A man is condemned to push a rock up a hill. The rock rolls down the hill just before he reaches the crest, and so he pushes the rock up again, and again, forever. This can be considered a curse. But the French writer Albert Camus saw romance in Sisyphus’ eternal labor. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” he wrote in the 1942 essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

The Sisyphean hero of Mickle Maher’s fabulous 2007 play, “The Strangerer,” at the MATCH through June 3, is a man standing at a podium who wishes to kill another man on stage over and over but cannot decide on the appropriate manner.

The fact that Sisyphus has been transformed into George W. Bush (Paul Locklear) is almost beside the point. He has two stage partners. The first is Jim Lehrer (Sean Patrick Judge), the PBS anchor, who is the murder candidate in question. The second is John Kerry (Troy Schulze), who is a passive observer to Bush’s absurdist-hero’s journey. The three actors reprise their roles after first performing the play in 2008.

“The Strangerer” is a restaging of sorts of the 2004 presidential debate between Bush and Kerry. But that’s merely Maher’s subject matter. What makes his play fascinating is not the content but the form — not the setting but the philosophy.

Locklear, as Bush, strikes a fine balance between impersonation and interpretation. Squinting his eyes and chuckling Texan-like at his own words as if they were brilliant, Bush calls Lehrer a “modulator,” and wonders if he should poison or “decapulate” the man.

But the Bushisms aren’t here as a gag. Bush’s linguistics are childlike, Maher shows us, and thus transcends the mundanity of everyday prose. Bush describes lights turning out as “darkness. The time of theater.” The play challenges you to stifle your laughter and consider the phrase’s elegance. When Bush defies conventions of standard English grammar, is he being ineloquent, Maher asks, or speaking poetry? The play challenges you to see the man as more than a caricature.

Rather than debate Kerry, Bush attempts to murder Lehrer. The play doesn’t explain why. Meanwhile, Bush deflects Lehrer’s questions about foreign policy with a Camus-esque story about wandering the streets of Coral Gables, Fla., before the debate and seeing a violent production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”

You can say the Bush character isn’t literal. His presence on the debate stage is simply a reincarnation of a man on a hill with a rock, making Maher’s play an adaptation of Camus’ seminal absurdist novel, “The Stranger,” since the novel was in turn an adaptation of the story of Sisyphus (Meursault, the protagonist of “The Stranger,” saunters toward a frustrating, beautifully futile journey toward death).

Judge has one of the best local acting performances of the year as Lehrer. Shuffling his notes, adjusting his tie and clearing his throat with robotic obsession, his deadpan interpretation is devoid of vocal change. That’s why he provokes so much laughter and sympathy from the audience — his performance, featuring microscopic range, pulls your attention toward his tiny deviations in behavior.

Judge roots the play in a semblance of realism, giving Maher’s absurdist vision an extra heft. While Maher’s previous two plays produced at the Catastrophic, “Small Ball” and “Song About Himself,” took place in fantasy, “The Strangerer” looks at “current” events through the prism of fun-house-mirrors. Here, Maher’s view on the world sings of urgency, turning the debate stage into both a metaphor for the cyclical, neutered nature of debate and a commentary on the amorality of American foreign policy.

Hudson Davis’s lighting and Shawn St. John’s sound design help make “The Strangerer” one of the most effective pieces of theater in Houston this season. They infuse the clinical debate stage with bursts of magic (sudden blackouts, Western film music) as a stand-in for the way Bush’s mind twists and turns reality into something … more than reality. Though the staging is simple, it’s a reminder that Sisyphus’ rolling rock — transformed into Bush’s winding tales and repetitive attempts at murder — refuses to offer meaning.

That’s because the moral of the story doesn’t lie in the events themselves. Because, look at all the meaninglessness of life. In Camus’ “The Stranger,” a man is sentenced to death because — long story short — he felt annoyed by how hot the beach was one day and shoots a man. In “The Strangerer,” a child smoking a cigarette falls to her death into the post-hurricane sludge of a river. To describe the scene, Bush uses sparse, measured-out language that borders on iambic pentameter.

He’s a hero fashioned after Camus’ absurdism. He dares observe life as a chaotic series of disconnected events, thus speaking into existence a dark fact about the world — that nothing matters.

But comedy’s more valuable than nihilism. When the lights and sounds go awry of expectation, it turns the stage into exactly how Maher invites us to see the world — as a bit more magical than recognized during a first glance. When politics, foreign policy and media seem like nothing but endless cycles in futility, the jester emerges as savior. President Bush forms his apish grin, pulls out a handgun and gives our starved souls what we need.