DEMOCRACY by Michael Frayn, directed by Richard Rose (Tarragon, 30 Bridgman). Previews through March 4, opens March 5 and runs to April 6. Pwyc-$38. 416-531-1827.
STUFF HAPPENS by David Hare, directed by Joel Greenberg (Studio 180). At Berkeley Theatre (26 Berkeley). Previews from February 29, opens March 4 and runs to March 29. $20-$45. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Political theatre so often turns out to be half-baked, the politics writ large, the theatre underdone.
Writers of this sort of drama tend to hammer their points home, and what’s worse is that they’re often speaking to the converted.
If someone’s trying to convince me to side with their point of view, a written argument is more effective than one expressed through characters who are little more than talking heads.
So I’m eagerly anticipating two shows by acclaimed playwrights who know that a work’s dramatic thrust is as important as its political viewpoint. While each has a historical frame, they comment on today’s politics while involving us in complex characters, some of whom we know all too well.
Stuff Happens chronicles the early Bush years in America, notably its march into war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Peopled with such figures as George W., former British prime minister Tony Blair, their ministers and some questioning reporters, the script uses public documents and imagined private meetings to examine a world situation that is sometimes, surprisingly, horrifically funny.
Michael Frayn’s Democracy looks at the regime of West German chancellor Willy Brandt, who took office in 1969. Frayn is best known for his hysterical farce Noises Off, but his keen intellect is evident in works like Copenhagen.
While the Hare play puts familiar figures onstage, Democracy offers few people we know. Instead, it focuses on one man, Günter Guillaume, a member of Brandt’s government who is in fact a mole for the East Germans.
“I’ve always chosen plays that have reservations about and challenge ideologies; I’m all for the contradiction,” says director Richard Rose.
It’s not only Guillaume who wears a mask here, for Brandt has different faces in private and public life. Behind the scenes, the members of his own party are finagling to use him, get what they want and move on in their careers and personal ambitions.
Rose, the Tarragon’s artistic director, talks about Brandt and Guillaume as a classic master-and-servant duo; they’re irrevocably tied together, though the chancellor doesn’t like the other man. At times they function, given Brandt’s predilection for sexual affairs, as Don Giovanni and his pandering servant Leporello.
“The play questions rather than provides answers about whose political and moral opinions are right,” continues Rose. “I’ve learned from my Barker” – Rose has directed several exciting, difficult pieces by iconoclastic British playwright Howard Barker – “to beware of all ideologies. They’re the start of oppression.”
Photo By Susan King
Joel Greenberg, director of Stuff Happens, sees Shakespearean grandeur in the Bush administration.
Studio 180’s Joel Greenberg, helming Stuff Happens, says the Hare play also works against expectations.
“People think it’ll be a send-up of Bush, but that’s not how Hare writes,” offers the director. “It could have been terribly earnest, it could have been a lampoon, but the U. S. president ends up a wily, incredibly manipulative figure, a man given to silences and always unreadable.”
After a look back at the history of the key players – Bush, Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Blair – the play cinematically follows important world events from the early Bush administration through the war on Baghdad. It’s not the same play that premiered in London in 2004; Hare’s made some changes and worked with Greenberg on updating it.
“The focal point now isn’t Bush but Colin Powell, whom Hare has called a Shakespearean character,” says Greenberg, who also directed The Laramie Project and The Arab-Israeli Cookbook for the company.
“Hare sees Stuff Happens not as a history play but a play about history, with all its complexities and nuances. I don’t know of another contemporary play that we can go back to time and again and see something different in it on each viewing.
“And the reason for that, I think, is that these historical characters change, and so do we.”
Rose doesn’t see Democracy, despite its title and its subject matter, as a political play.
“While it’s about the nature of democracy, it’s also about human nature. I’d go so far as to call it a love story between a spy and the man he’s spying on.”