David Hare's Stuff Happens is a political drama based on events that transpired between the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and 2003's invasion of Iraq, and in his director's notes for Augustana College's fascinatingly uneven production of the play, Scott Magelssen writes that the "national, racial, and ethnic backgrounds" of the show's characters - which include Colin Powell, Sadaam Hussein, and Yo-Yo Ma - presented "a steep challenge to Augustana College Theatre's casting pool."
Consequently, among the 40-plus figures portrayed by this production's cast of 15, George W. Bush is played by a woman and Condoleeza Rice by a (Caucasian) man, and Magelssen writes that, because of this anti-realist style, "you don't have to 'believe' these actors are the characters they are playing. They are 'presenting' one story of the events in question for your consideration."
Those quotation marks around "believe," however, are most important. No one, of course, should be expected to watch Brian Bengtson as Rice and actually "believe" that he's secretary of state. But for Hare's play to work as drama, we absolutely must believe that the actors are the characters they're portraying, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or gender; without total commitment on part of the cast, Stuff Happens is merely a smart collection of sound bites and historical imaginings. "Presentational" is one thing, but when Augustana's season-closer is really rolling, it's not because of Hare's invention or Magelssen's clever staging: It's because we truly believe in the people.
At Friday's opening-night performance, though, I initially had doubts whether this would happen. You may feel you're being tipped off to the production's M.O. with Mike Heather's set design, a deliberately cartoonish approximation of the White House exterior featuring, among other elements, a tank outside the front door and a steer poking its head out of a main-floor window; the set suggests a possible cover for Cracked magazine. (The rooftop helicopter - its lights looking like eyeballs - could be the leading character in an aerial version of Pixar's Cars.) And before the play began, there was a jokey, misguided voice-over intro by Kyle Roggenbuck's George W., in which the actress instructed us to turn off our cell phones and pagers; Roggenbuck's aw-shucks cadences were amusing, but did nothing to suggest that the production would strive for more than easy laughs. Stuff Happens hadn't yet started, and already I feared the worst.
It took several minutes for that feeling to subside. Stylistically, Magelssen's most ingenious directorial decision is to have the cast members accompanied by life-size cardboard cutouts of their famed counterparts, strategically positioned near the actors as they perform. These props are sensationally effective, and the choreography behind their placement is marvelously executed, yet the grinning, even goofy visages of Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, among others, can't help but be taken ironically - our nation's leaders laughing at our pain. They undermine the frequent import of characters' dialogue; the same points could have been made with less overtly derisive head shots. (The cardboard Sadaam, meanwhile, brings to mind nothing so much as the nattering Hussein of South Park, though that's hardly the production's fault.)
For a while, you'd think the cast was going to be just as dimensionless. Hare's work opens with Donald Rumsfeld's notorious, titular dismissal of the lootings in Iraq, yet Eliza Bockstahler, who plays the former secretary of defense, delivered his press-room speech with such smug, comically exaggerated indifference that the words carried no weight. It wasn't so much that I didn't buy Bockstahler as the character as I didn't buy her as a person, and something similar happened with Christine Barnes' Dick Cheney, introduced as an obnoxiously self-satisfied, cigar-chomping heavy out of a 1930s gangster movie. During the introductory prelude, even those of us who enjoy a good bashing of the Bush administration may feel compelled to defend it against Stuff Happens' imposed satire, and by the time Roggenbuck appeared - her Dubya brow parodistically furrowed in contemplation - I prepared myself for a two-act Saturday Night Live skit.
Blessedly, it never comes to that, and the key to the show's successes can actually be found in Roggenbuck's portrayal; like numerous members of the dexterous cast, she begins with her character's externals and, ever so subtly, works her way inward. Once we've accepted her Bush impersonation, the performance gains in authority and depth, and we realize that this will be no facile aping of our commander-in-chief; Roggenbuck truly means what she's saying.
The ensemble members providing Stuff Happens' running commentary deliver exposition at near-warp speed, which, on Friday night, caused a few to repeatedly stumble over lines. (The breathless narration shouldn't make the actors themselves sound breathless.) But when, as with Roggenbuck, the performers have time to think about what they're saying and why they're saying it, several deliver positively outstanding portrayals.
Justin Schaller is a riveting, hugely empathetic Colin Powell (his climactic Act I tirade was thrillingly well-done); Charlie Zamastil's Dominique de Villepin is superbly insinuating and incredulous; and lengthy monologues delivered by Hannah Kalk (as a sensible Labour Party politico) and Rachel Krein (as a shattered Iraqi exile) are marvelously paced and heartrending. Nick Padiak lends humor and terrific focus to a number of minor roles, while Bengtson's turn as Condy is the triumph of unconventional casting; the actor's work transcends the built-in jokiness and is never less than honest.
Best of all, though, is Ben Webb as a deeply conflicted, understandably impatient Tony Blair, providing a spot-on accent, a powerful dramatic center, and a majority of the show's unexpected laughs. (When Bush described the Queen Mother as "a beautiful woman," Webb elicited an explosive cackle with Blair's response: "Well, yes ... in her way.") Despite a number of first-rate character performances and memorable scenes - the group's hushed, haunted rendition of "Amazing Grace" is sublimely moving - I wish the rest of Augustana's Stuff Happens had been produced with the controlled urgency of Webb's portrayal; when he's on stage, you completely believe in both the actor and the show, and do so with and without quotation marks.
For tickets, call (309) 794-7306.