Friday, June 10, 2005

"Stuff Happens" - A Review

On April 11, 2003, when asked to comment on the widespread looting of Baghdad, Donald Rumsfeld said:
Stuff happens…and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.

This quote was the inspiration for the title of David Hare’s new history play about the run-up to the Iraq War. After premiering at the National Theatre in London last year, Stuff Happens is currently playing at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles until July 17. As of now, it is the only planned US production. I saw it on Tuesday and found it an extremely eloquent, disturbing and at times thrilling theatrical experience. If you can get to the LA area, you have to check it out. For performance dates and tickets go here.

What makes Rumsfeld’s quote so maddening, of course, is the passive voice he employs – with these two words he seeks to render himself and the administration completely unaccountable for anything bad that would ultimately happen as a result of the invasion of Iraq (a lack of accountability that would come to be a trademark of the Bush presidency) – hey, don’t blame us, stuff just happens. In the hands of David Hare, the phrase is meant to be an ironic comment on just how actively the Bush administration pursued and got their war in Iraq.

With a combination of real life transcripts and imagined dialogue based on extensive research, Hare compellingly dramatizes the chronology of behind the scenes machinations and strategies employed by the administration to lead us into war. While all major players are present, from Dominique deVillepin to Jack Straw to Wolfie to W, the meatiest roles are Colin Powell and Tony Blair. In David Hare’s hands, they are tragic figures, taken in by the Neocons despite their good intentions, in Tony Blair’s case, to affect change in the world for the better and in Powell’s case, to avoid war at all costs (to BushCo, Blair’s idealism and Powell’s loyalty to other nations are stumbling blocks in their path.) But the play does not let them off the hook – they are complicit in their own ways, but they’re the closest things we have to heroes to root for. In fact, Colin Powell is a full on antagonist to Bush, Rummy & Cheney, getting to deliver lines such as “Do you know what I hear? I hear things like the reason the Americans are so sure Iraq has WMDs is that they still have the receipts!” And in one particularly exasperated moment, Powell even calls Bush Co a bunch of “right wing wackos.” Cue applause.

Just as the portrayal of Powell’s relationship with the rest of the administration seems to be a heightened version of what we’ve come to accept as conventional wisdom – i.e. he was the lone moderate voice – so the portrayals of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are exaggerated versions of our worst impressions of them: Bush a dim puppet, Cheney a cranky warmonger, Rumsfeld a manic megalomaniac; but ultimately, Hare accomplishes something more interesting. By tracing these characters’ real words and their imagined private meetings, he fills in the gaps for us, he answers the question “how the fuck could this have happened” and he makes us understand why it happened. In the tradition of the best villains, Hare gives this triumvirate their own internal motivations and, despite the caricatured performances, actually succeeds in making them more human.

Special notice should go to Lorraine Toussaint as Condolleezza Rice, portrayed here as charming, intelligent and pragmatic but most definitely Bush’s puppet master. And Stephen Spinella steals every scene he is in as Dominique De Villepin, then France’s Foreign Minister, who delicately (and sometimes not so delicately) dances with Colin Powell at the UN.

Another feature of the play is a series of monologues by various anonymous characters such as an American professor who compellingly argues the case for war, a Palestinian student who wonders how it came to pass that the victims became the problem in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and an Iraqi who draws a parallel between Iraqis and the US saying we get the leaders we deserve. These “viewpoints” remove us temporarily from the action to give voice to everymen and women affected by the events dramatized.

I must say perhaps the most startling moment for me was the end. Not the last line of the play but literally the end, after the last word was spoken. The actors came out for their curtain call and they were no longer in character; but these were no ordinary characters the actors had portrayed, these were the antagonists of my daily life, these were the people I worked so hard last year to fire, the very people that wage a daily assault on my values. My first instinct was to refuse them applause. Fuck ‘em, I thought to myself. These characters had become so real for me over the course of the previous 3 hours that for a moment I couldn’t separate them from the real versions I see on my TV on any given day.

While the meeting that the Downing Street Minutes documents is not dramatized in Stuff Happens, it is there in spirit in virtually every scene. This play may have been first produced last September, but it is as timely now as if it were written yesterday. With the recent release of the DSM and the death toll in Iraq rising every day, Stuff Happens is a stark reminder of just how tragic Bush’s reign has been.


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