Theater review: “The Strangerer”

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Ken Webster (left), Jason Phelps (seated) and Robert Pierson in "The Strangerer"

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Cate Blouke.)

 

American politics often feel like exercises in futility to those of us watching. Candidates go around and around, circling the same points, and getting in jabs wherever possible. And even with abysmal voter turnout, it’s hard to feel like your vote makes a difference.

But perhaps the candidates suffer from their own sets of existential angst in the face of the great political machine. That’s sort of the premise of Mickle Maher’s “The Strangerer,” produced by Capital T Theatre and playing through June 27 at Hyde Park Theatre.

Ken Webster (left), Jason Phelps (seated) and Robert Pierson in "The Strangerer"

Ken Webster (left), Jason Phelps (seated) and Robert Pierson in “The Strangerer”

George W. Bush (Robert Pierson) had an experience at the theater last night, and he’s searching for some way to re-capture the magic of that moment. Murdering Jim Lehrer (Jason Phelps) might just be the way. John Kerry seems to be sleep-walking his way through life and through the presidential debate in which Maher’s script is set.

The show is a mash up of the 2004 presidential debate and several works by existential philosopher Albert Camus. In Camus’ “The Stranger,” a man kills a stranger and feels no remorse. In Camus’ “The Plague,” well, lots of people die in  gruesome ways – with an abundance of rats and panic and famine. Mix these things together, and you have the basics for Maher’s strange and playful script.

Based on a debate and several works of philosophy, the show is inevitably rather talky, and it struggles to maintain energy and keep our attention – in spite of Pierson’s delightful rendition of our 43rd president. Phelps is equally amusing as the dogged Lehrer (who in this world has a peculiar penchant for weaponry).

The show starts off in a sort of “Groundhog Day”-type loop, and it’s really quite funny for a while. But as the tone becomes increasingly dark, the vivid descriptions of violence and decay are enough to make those of us sensitive to such things squirm in our seats. Similarly, Bush’s malapropisms are hilarious at first, but over the 90 minutes, their appearance in almost every other sentence become tedious even to the harshest of Bush critics.

So in some ways the show seems like an extended Saturday Night Live skit on a philosophical bender. This certainly offers a lot of opportunity for laughter, but it doesn’t quite nail the landing.

Ultimately, “The Strangerer” is weird and interesting and entertaining even if it won’t exactly keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the performance.

 


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