Donald Trump: real estate mogul, former reality TV star, Republican presidential frontrunner . . . theater programmer?
In a roundabout way, yes. Upholding the sturdy tradition of theater as a vehicle of political protest, prophecy, or simply commentary, several Boston-area troupes are responding to the prospect of a Trump presidency with dramas and satires that focus on the dangers of authoritarianism.
For the most part, these are not new works — though playwrights and scriptwriters are no doubt at work on a batch of Trump-inspired stage dramas, films, and TV episodes — but rather existing plays that presenters see as chillingly relevant in a Trumpian context.
The production most directly prompted by Trump is also the most incendiary: C.P. Taylor’s Nazi-era “Good,’’ slated for Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre in the weeks before the November election. In that 1981 play, a seemingly moderate professor in 1930s Germany rationalizes the actions of the ascendant Nazis, describing them as “a temporary aberration,’’ until, bit by bit, he is drawn into participating in their horrors.
“I hate making the cheap correlation of Trump as Hitleresque, but when I look at the rallies and the games that are being played, there’s something going on,’’ says New Rep artistic director Jim Petosa. “We are accommodating ourselves. Things that would have been unthinkable a year ago have become standard operating procedure. We’re changing as a country whether he wins or loses. There’s a dangerous legacy being put out there that we need to pay attention to.’’
“Maybe it’s not Donald Trump we have to fear. Maybe he’s too much of a clown,’’ adds Petosa. “But who’s the person who’s going to take on the mantle? I feel we are facing a future when we are going to have to make hard choices about who we are as a people.’’
Attention to the implications of the Trump phenomenon will be paid at Gloucester Stage as well, where Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “The Totalitarians’’ is slated for September. In Nachtrieb’s no-holds-barred satire, a Sarah Palin-like candidate who secretly intends to establish a dictatorship whips up crowds by delivering semi-coherent, doom-and-gloom assessments of the status quo, coupled with lavish promises of how wonderful things will be if she’s elected.
When she commits an act of lethal violence onstage, her supporters cheer even louder — inevitably bringing to mind Trump’s boast that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.’’
“The forces that the candidate is fronting for [in ‘The Totalitarians’] are absolutely authoritarian forces,’’ says Gloucester Stage managing director Jeff Zinn, who will helm the production. “And her slogan is ‘Freedom From Fear.’ It’s a very fascistic, simplistic slogan intended to push the buttons of a fearful populace, and the candidacy is one that plays to people’s fears. There’s a direct line you can draw from ‘The Totalitarians’ to Trump.’’
Ordinarily, portraying an American presidential hopeful as a potential dictator would seem overwrought and far-fetched. But Trump has laid out a remarkably full banquet of ammunition for his foes, including conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who wrote last week that “the Trump campaign is a kind of comic-opera version of a demagogue’s rise, a first-as-farce warning about how our political system could succumb to authoritarianism.’’
Among other things, Trump has praised autocratic Russian President Vladimir Putin, warned that Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is “going to have to a pay a big price’’ if he and Trump don’t get along, predicted “riots’’ at the Republican National Convention if party leaders move to deny him the nomination, vowed to “open up those libel laws’’ to make it easier to sue newspapers, and proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.’’ As a protester was being escorted out of one of his rallies, Trump told the crowd: “I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell ya.’’
Some theater artists are throwing punches of their own. Last month New York’s Peccadillo Theater Company held a staged reading of “It Can’t Happen Here,’’ Sinclair Lewis’s adaptation of his novel about a populist candidate who wins the presidency by vowing that he will (to borrow a phrase) make America great again. The company’s artistic director, Dan Wackerman, declared that the play “shows how the loss of our cherished freedoms can happen by the gradual accommodation to the ‘new normal’ of demagogues like Donald Trump.’’
Robert Walsh, artistic director of Gloucester Stage, said that the combination of “Trump madness,’’ widespread political polarization, and the reduction of campaigns to sound-bites had prompted him to initially consider a fall production of his adaptation of another famous novel: Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,’’ about a populist demagogue who rises to become governor of a Southern state.
Theater’s limited audience notwithstanding, Walsh says there is an unmatchable potency to political messages delivered in live performance. “In a theater, where it’s way more visceral, it can galvanize and energize and can even influence people who don’t necessarily hold the opinion of what’s being set forth,’’ he says. “Everybody is working it out in the room at the moment. It begs you to respond more immediately.’’
Next April, Cambridge’s Underground Railway Theater will present the world premiere of Laura Maria Censabella’s “Paradise,’’ about a Muslim-American girl in the Bronx who tries to balance her passion for science with respect for the cultural traditions in which she’s been raised. By e-mail, artistic director Debra Wise says that the company “did not program with [Trump] in mind, but we did program with the current climate in mind. So there are connections.’’
“We were so drawn to ‘Paradise’ because it seems particularly important right now to stage a play about the hopes and dreams of an observant Muslim-American teenaged girl,’’ says Wise. “Because of hate-mongering about Muslim-Americans, and Trump has certainly contributed to that festering problem.’’
Perhaps fittingly, given the stranger-than-fiction quality of Trump’s persona and campaign, Boston-based Titanic Theatre Company plans a production this fall of Jamie Pachino’s “The Return to Morality,’’ a 1999 play about a liberal professor who writes a novel that he intends as a satire of right-wing extremism, only to find himself embraced by such extremists after it is published as nonfiction. Soon the professor is swept up in a media whirlwind.
“We realized how topical this play was, given the from-the-hip quality of Trump’s campaigning, and how the media has been complicit to an extent in putting that out there, and how simplistic ideas can become very dangerous,’’ says Michael Ricca, a founding member of the company. “With some of the things that are being said publicly by politicians, especially Donald Trump, it doesn’t seem as farfetched as when [Pachino] wrote it back in the late 1990s.’’
“I certainly hope that in October it’s not as topical as it seems to be right now,’’ Ricca adds. “I hope we’re looking back and saying this could have been who was running. I would happily seize that if that were the case.’’