It’s a good thing I had my ID at the theater last night because an usher asked me for it at the door.
It took me a good long while to figure out that this little bureaucratic trip-up was an extension of the performance — not exactly street art, but foyer art, if you will — and that the ID the usher was asking for wasn’t my Yale one but the government-issued plastic card, the ID that controversially confirmed that I was an American citizen, eligible to vote. The play, “Richard 2012,” was billed as an “election event,” after all, and as a defensive American I wouldn’t want any foreigners to be better armed to ridicule to the circus-theatrics of the recent election. “Don’t air dirty laundry,” as the saying goes. I doubt that’s what writers Alex Kramer ’13, Charlie Polinger ’13 and Raphael Shapiro ’13 had in mind when they had an usher ask for my ID — though I’m kind of foreign, after all — but then again … I doubt that the usher knew I’d actually be voting on the show’s candidates: I’m reviewing the show, after all.
So I’ll come clean: it’s a blockbuster show, a media mash up of the best (Shakespeare’s “Richard II”) and the worst (campaign materials) of Western civilization into an energetic, timely punk of a senior project that simultaneously manages to sustain some deep insights. Kramer, who plays the “incumbent,” kicks off the show with an oration collaged out of 16 separate Obama speeches, starting with his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention way back in 2004. Kramer’s uncanny vocal imitation of Obama fuels a fast-forward capsule of the president’s political flight. The oscillating, start-and-stop style of his stump speech; the lilt; the arrogant tendency towards pontification — Kramer mimics these Obama hallmarks to an admirably tactful, even respectful, degree, which only bolsters a runaway scene that seeks to flake away the words’ polish, and then grind it underfoot. It’s all the more honest for his fairness to the man he’s portraying.
Snaking through the speech is the makeshift Obama campaign slogan, “Fired up, ready to go!” Through overuse, its spontaneous radiance collapses into a fatigued mantra — and a false one to boot, as becomes clearer with Kramer’s every sigh and snappy shrug. By the time Kramer settles into an Oval Office desk that’s too big for him, he seems battle-weary, unprepared for the policy briefs an aide dumps at his side. He ends up circling the desk, folding himself into it like he’s going into hiding, though I’d like to believe he’s de-stressing with some office yoga.
Shapiro plays the only other character, Kramer’s challenger — Romney, that is, though Shapiro’s mimicry certainly isn’t as faithful as Kramer’s. He captures Romney’s slickness, but riffs on the role more widely than Kramer, in a way that conveys more of his own personal charm. At the Republican Convention he breaks out into a lip-lickingly smug song-and-dance routine of “Yankee Doodle Dandee.” Romney was never that expressive; his hair was.
A large chunk of Shapiro’s acting takes place on screen, where pre-filmed interviews linger on Shapiro’s physiognomy in a way that creates an intimacy never granted to Kramer. A strategic move on the writers’ part, no doubt: without the humanizing videos, the play would exhibit a salient bias against the Republican candidate, whose gaffes balloon to satiric proportions, especially in the debate scenes. Indeed, Shapiro sometimes gropes for simple words with a style more Dubya than Romney, and seems a bit overeager when interrupting questioners.
Its own partisan tics aside, the play takes on partisanship with scrutinizing intensity. With only two real characters — silent aides don’t count — audiences suffer from a claustrophobically binary arrangement that resembles American politics all too well. The costumes are all red or blue; so are the banners. The audience members, arranged on two sides of the theater, facing one another, literally face off. Towards the show’s end, Shapiro and Romney predictably duke it out, in a protracted, slow-motion brawl studded with strobe lights. It’s a hilarious scene, but gratuitous; comic relief isn’t exactly wanting in the script. The “morning after” the debate, where Shapiro and Kramer come out as janitors cleaning up after themselves, wins out though; using Shakespeare’s lines, they fret over the sovereign’s fate — an ironic self-appraisal by two politicians who’ve already disgraced themselves.
The integration of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” grounds the intensely current play in eternal questions about statecraft’s uncertainties. But Shakespeare’s lines don’t call attention to themselves, and their role is frankly secondary. Instead, it’s the writers’ own original directorial choices that raise the play’s content above hackneyed critiques of politics.