Thursday, October 14, 2004

Reflections on Last Night

History writes lousy theatre. Last night’s final debate between John Kerry and George W. Bush proved that. (It’s a good thing, too, or else there would be no need for playwrights.) There were no knockouts, no moments like from The West Wing where President Bartlet deflated his vacant-as-a-jar challenger Governor Ritchie with a good solid climactic comeback. The punditocracy will dissect and debate the facts about Osama Bin Forgotten and the number of votes Kerry cast to raise or lower taxes, but I looked at this performance last night with the theatre scholar’s eye and I came away with a very strong impression not just of facts and ideology but of character and objective, and I saw things that tell a lot about the makeup of the men who were on stage last night and in whom we will be placing our trust for the next four years. And if this was an audition for the role of President, John Kerry gets the part; George W. Bush wouldn’t get a callback.

It’s not based just on looks and carriage. Casting against type can work if the actor can make you believe that he or she can convey the thoughts and feelings of the character with honesty and truth. It comes through in body language and in the tone of the voice. Speaking with conviction isn’t enough; if you don’t understand the words you are saying and come across as just shouting – like some tourist named Milton in Rome who thinks that by speaking slowly and loudly the cab driver will magically understand English – then the meaning of the words is lost and so is the argument. John Kerry knows that winning an argument or making a point isn’t done by shouting or blindly repeating a talking point regardless of the question.

Based solely on the style and the dialogue last night, if I had been tuning in to the presidential election for the first time without knowing who was the challenger and who was the incumbent, it would have been difficult to judge who was the man who had spent the last four years in the Oval Office. George W. Bush came across as if he was unfamiliar with the job of being president; he looked like the upstart. Mr. Bush seems to have this uncanny ability to find humor and laughter at the most inappropriate times. It must be a nervous reaction when he realizes he has no idea what the hell to do next. John Kerry, on the other hand, conveyed a sense that he knew what he was getting in to and the sacrifices that he would have to make to get the job done. And he knows when to get in a laugh line.

There are times when I’ve been directing a play where I see what I call The Moment; the point at which the play goes from being a bunch of actors reciting lines to when it actually comes alive and the characters take over. Sometimes it happens early on in the rehearsal process and it becomes a thing of wonder as the story unfolds. Sometimes it happens as late as opening night and you heave a huge sigh of relief and give thanks to the theatre gods for being able to pull it off. Sometimes it never happens, and every night is torture as you watch your work labor its way across the stage like a cow in the last stages of a difficult pregnancy, the audience staring at the stage with no connection between them and the agony going on up under the lights. Last night I got a glimmer of The Moment in John Kerry’s closing statement, and I went to bed feeling like we’re almost there; the sense of wonder and magic is about to happen.

Okay, cue the houselights; everybody onstage for the big finale.