Saturday, April 9, 2011

Stuff Happens Is an Engaging Political Drama

by James E. Trainor III

Iowa City - As Marx once observed, "history repeats itself - the first time as history, the second time as farce." If the first Bush Administration's buildup to war in Iraq was our tragedy, David Hare's Stuff Happens is definitely our farce. Hare has constructed a surreal, high-stakes drama out of these events, a modern history play in the scale of Shakespeare, with the tragic dignity of Miller and the gallows humor of Beckett.

Stuff Happens combines actual speeches from famous figures with second-hand reports and speculation, structured by actors who stand to the side and narrate the tale, giving context and commentary. It reads as if The Laramie Project was remixing our evening news.

On the one hand, this familiarity fuels the drama, giving it a sense of inevitability. We remember moments like Powell holding up a model vial of anthrax and the British headline "Forty-Five Minutes to War!" and we already have opinions about them, which makes the piece really engaging.

It gives the actors a lot to work against, however. These are familiar figures who were in our living rooms as recently as ten years ago - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Tony Blair, not to mention George W. Bush - all of these people have become characters in their own right; they've become larger than life. Director Ryan Foizey's approach is to "humanize these political figures," focusing more on the drama of the piece, which works well, but somehow the personalities seem a little sparse in parts.

Justin Braden is solid as Bush, and the relationships and objectives are clear, but he lacks some of the warmth and likability Bush was known for. Braden's Bush comes off as a little too formal, a little too composed.

On the other end, Brian Tanner's Cheney is perhaps a bit too likable. This is a man remembered for being crass and awkward; Tanner does an excellent job with Cheney's tirade against Powell at the end, but I felt a bit more work could have gone into characterization.

These are small aesthetic things, however, and for the most part the approach bodes well in the dramatic scenes. It's a very difficult line to walk when playing a real person from recent memory, especially if that real person is a bit of an oddball. You don't want to be too dry, but you don't want to push too far into the ludicrous. Scott K. Strode walks this line extremely well - he dances on it, in fact. He glides though Rumsfeld's sarcastic, puzzling, and often ridiculous speeches with grace and biting wit, yet still manages to keep the objective-play clear.

Nicole Reedy is subtle and subdued as Condoleezza Rice; she seems to be the power behind the throne, literally speaking for Bush in some of the earlier scenes. Her best work is in what she does not do; some of the most effective moments are in her silent glances with Cheney, Bush, Wolfowitz, and other members of the inner circle.

If these are our warmongers, our protagonists are an unlikely pair: Tony Blair and Colin Powell. Hare's Blair, as portrayed by Rob Merritt, is a high-minded but practical individual, one committed to the moral use of political power but well aware of how the game is played. There's a long scene at Camp David, where Blair attempts to convince Bush to wait, to do things the diplomatic way. This Blair is a lot more sympathetic than the real one - or maybe it's just Blair before his fall from grace. In a pivotal moment in the following scene, uncertain about what agreement he's really reached with Bush, Blair takes a gamble and decides to leak some intelligence - a move which ends up tarnishing his political career. Merritt plays the scene with careful gravitas; Blair is aware he has gone too far but he has passed the point of no return.

Of all these varied characters, K. Michael Moore's Powell steals the show. He's the counterpart to Blair, on the inside with Bush but not quite close enough. Throughout the play he advocates reason and caution; he speaks passionately but bluntly, working tirelessly to exhaust all the options before allowing Washington to unilaterally attack Baghdad. Moore's energy is inexhaustible, his commitment is consistent, and he brings a humanity and a morality to what really is a dark comedy. Though we know he's ultimately going to fail, it's a joy to watch this straight man talk back to a White House full of clowns.

The dramatic scenes in this production were quite well done, with great performances by a very talented cast. It really stumbled in the transitions, however. Stuff Happens isn't just a straightforward drama about the personalities involved in the war; it has a lot of other layers. This requires a lot of fast-paced montages of narration, sound bytes, off-handed comments, and crucial facts, all which need to go by without dropping the energy between scenes. The set, while good at setting a realistic environment, didn't really allow for this type of flow. The direction wasn't quite tight enough; the beginning and the end were very slow, and it seemed there were even a couple missed entrances. All in all a great cast, and some good direction with some very engaging moments, but the pacing did stutter quite a bit.

Stuff Happens will run one more weekend, April 15th and 16th, 7:30pm, at the Universalist Unitarian Society, 10 S. Gilbert St. Reservations can be made at $12 general, $10 seniors, $8 students.

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