In the latest production by Washington’s Synetic Theater, an original morality play titled “The Mark of Cain,” the dastardly central character undergoes a series of physical transformations. Cain — the biblical figure who slew his brother, Abel — metamorphosizes first into a cruel Roman emperor, then a bloodthirsty medieval king, then a fascist dictator. And finally, into a familiar-looking guy in a solid red tie who’s obsessed with his smartphone, one who is described in the program as “a media-savvy demagogue.”
Hmm, which phone-loving “media-savvy” fellow could “The Mark of Cain” director, Paata Tsikurishvili, possibly be referencing? Might it be a man who is showing up with increasing frequency, literally and figuratively, on stages from Crystal City to Central Park?
With almost as much gusto as the talkers on cable news channels, the theater world is chewing over the bombastic image and pronouncements of President Trump, albeit with even less concern about the appearance of neutrality. It’s fair to say that among the lively arts, the theater has staked a claim most quickly and aggressively as a conduit for critiques of an administration that the vast majority of artists look upon as a threat. More to the point, theater makers seem to be scurrying to take up rhetorical arms and secure a place in the vanguard of artistic resistance. In other words, the rush is on, to vent onstage about Trump.
The dramatic pot has been burbling for a while now, coming to an especially provocative boil last month in Manhattan, where Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, staged a modern dress “Julius Caesar” in the outdoor Delacorte Theater. An actor made up as Trump played Caesar, who, as every high school student knows, is assassinated by Roman senators alarmed by his growing tyranny. Performances were interrupted by right-wing protesters, some corporate sponsors withdrew their support, and Eustis was accused in some quarters of a thought crime against the presidency. But the director argued at the time of the controversy that his conceit came from the heart of Shakespeare’s play. “The fundamental question in ‘Julius Caesar’ is what do you do to protect a democracy when a demagogue is threatening the thing that you love?” he said in an interview. “My job is how do you make the audience feel that?”
In terms of a rapid response to changes in the White House, the American stage has not seen anything like this, perhaps, since the era of Vietnam and Watergate. And as with the plays and musicals of that time, these early attempts at capturing some essence of what’s going on are often too rawly conceived, too facilely a reverberation off the cultural echo chamber, or mere excuses for getting something off one’s chest. The first time you see Trump or his administration’s ideas sent up on a stage, there’s a jolt, but that charge isn’t easily sustained from production to production.
“Building the Wall,” for example, is a two-character drama that the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan told the New York Times he whipped up in a “white hot fury” in response to Trump’s campaign. It posits a prison interview in the near future in which a white supremacist details the brutalities he inflicted on Muslims and people of color rounded up after the declaration by Trump of martial law. The piece was a last-minute addition this past spring to the rosters of theaters across the nation, including Forum Theatre in Silver Spring, Md. It also was produced commercially off-Broadway, where its reviewed were mixed and it fizzled at the box office. It closed in early June, about a month before it was supposed to.
In “Things You Shouldn’t Say,” a new revue-style offering at Theater J by the Kinsey Sicks, a popular irreverent group that calls itself a “Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet,” Trump comes in for lambasting, with the group suggesting the administration’s agenda is not exactly friendly to anyone who isn’t of Trump’s persuasion. “White is the new black,” they declare at one point in the show, “because orange is the new president!” Playwright Josh Harmon (“Bad Jews”) was moved last fall to what he described to reporters as an “act of civil disobedience” to write “Ivanka,” a riff on “Medea” in which the president’s daughter commits a violent act as a repudiation of her family. And on Broadway, the Trump-bashing momentum is building, with preview performances beginning Friday for activist-filmmaker Michael Moore’s world premiere one-person show, “The Terms of My Surrender.”
That doesn’t even include the new stage adaptation on Broadway of George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel “1984,” a work whose themes echo the cautionary condemnations of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies — and a production so bloody that there are reports of audience members passing out. Or the stand that the cast of “Hamilton” took when Mike Pence, then vice president-elect, visited the show. A cast member read a statement during the curtain call declaring that “we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us.”
This veritable avalanche of theatrical anti-Trumpism suggests that writers and directors perceive a door open to channeling audience discontent. Moore, for one, is hoping that the outrage has legs. “Can a Broadway show bring down a sitting president?” goes one of the promotional slogans used on “The Terms of My Surrender’s” website.
Writing for New York Magazine’s Vulture blog this week, journalist Mark Harris cannily noted how attitudes about Trump at the moment are shaping the way we perceive political messaging across a spectrum of popular entertainment. A “mix of intentional resonance and discovered resonance pervades culture right now,” he explained. In TV series such as Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s bleak novel imagining a society in which women live under total male domination, Harris says we’re finding connections that may not have been apparent back when filming began. “ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has been called prescient by many,” he wrote, “and right now, in the place where real life and entertainment meet, there’s no higher praise.”
Certainly, where theater and Trump meet these days, the resonances seem passionately intentional. Still, so far at least, many of the points being scored come across as brittle and no more profound than the subject himself. Great theater thrives on nuance and complexity; Trump is the opposite, and the artistic responses to a figure of such superficiality and vindictiveness have tended to be rather thin and shrill as well. In Eustis’s Central Park “Julius Caesar,” for instance, the performances by John Douglas Thompson as Cassius and Corey Stoll as Brutus carried infinitely more emotional and rhetorical weight than did actor Gregg Henry’s caricaturing of Trump.
Taking angry swipes may release some pent-up audience desire to engage in communal scorn. Two weeks ago during the Encores! short-run concert revival at Manhattan’s City Center of “Assassins,” Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s brilliant, brooding 1990 cabaret of the men and women who tried or succeeded in killing an American president, one line in particular brought a commanding round of laughter and applause. “Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along,” sings the musical’s balladeer, appealingly played at City Center by Clifton Duncan.
Here was an interesting variation on Harris’s theory of “discovered resonance.” The “madman” in Sondheim’s lyric refers, of course, to the likes of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. A New York audience, tuned into the discordant music emanating daily from Washington, was hearing it as a reference to Trump.
Perhaps in a time of nerves rubbed extremely raw, instant gratification is the most useful service the theater can provide. We’ll have to see if the thinkers of this form discover for themselves some deeper resonances; “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner, for one, has disclosed that he’s writing a play, set two years before the 2016 election, in which Trump is a character. In the meantime, it seems, the ire being purged on American stages suggests that a Broadway show by a provocateur such as Moore still has a chance of being all the rage.