by David Hare
Directed by Joel Greenberg
Plays through March 29th
26 Berkeley St., Toronto, 416-368-3110

Review by Robin Breon

Joel Greenberg's Studio 180 production of David Hare's play, Stuff Happens, is currently receiving rave reviews in Toronto. The praise is well deserved coming as it does at a time when the Iraq war still commands daily headlines, while each day our memory fades as to how we got into this mess in the first place. Stuff Happens -- which takes its title from the infamously cavalier remark made by (then) Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld on the consequences of war -- reminds us.

David Hare's work is often accused of sacrificing drama for polemics. In Stuff Happens, he shows us why that's not really a bad thing. Argument, debate, and controversy between protagonists and antagonists and the many who fall in between makes for great political theatre. And Hare's prolific career hasn't hesitated to take on the church, political parties, the press, and the law with an issue that starts locally and then quickly moves off into the world at a brisk pace.

As the playwright assembles all of the usual suspects to debate the pros and cons of toppling the government of Saddam Hussein five years ago this month, we could easily fall into a sketch from Saturday Night Live. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, George Tenet, Hans Blix, Jack Straw and the list goes on to about 25 principals, who engage our attention, argue their points and ultimately lead the U.S. into a tragedy so morally debased that it should almost be played as farce or parody.

It is here that Greenberg's firm directorial hand guides the actors and counsels against caricature in favour of cogency. In the end this approach is all the more frightening because we realize -- so much the more so now in retrospect -- that these folks firmly believed that the big bamboozle was absolutely necessary. When George Bush tells us that God told him it was OK, we know that this is no laughing matter. He really believes that He told him to do it.

But what really makes the production work is that one of the greatest scams in history -- "weapons of mass destruction", "Saddam Hussein is a leader in Al Qaeda", "foreign troops will be greeted as liberators" -- is told in glorious detail by such an outstanding cast of actors. Although physical resemblance is not absolutely necessary, it certainly helps when playing contemporary personalities that are so vividly etched into our minds by television and the casting is spot on. Barry Flatman nails George Bush while allowing us to get up close and personal. And it's disturbing when we do. David Fox is a dead ringer for Rumsfeld as is Andrew Gillies angst ridden Tony Blair. The enigmatic Condoleezza Rice is played with frugal efficiency by Yanna McIntosh, while the multi-talented Michael Healey plays a variety of roles. Nigel Shawn Williams tees off as a noble Colin Powell and the fact that Hare decided to portray Powell as redemptible might be pushing it a bit, but I guess you have to search for some good guys within this rogues gallery of duplicity, mendacity and deceit.

One final word on the staging of the play. The script itself is long on narrative, chronology and argument, while short on stage directions. This might have defeated lesser, lazier directors by opting for a kind of full frontal to the audience to ensure that every point is drilled home. Not so with Greenberg. In a burst of creative choreography involving twelve swivel office chairs on rolling casters, Greenberg allows us to shift focus and point of view in an instant by the quick reversal of the chairs and their seated inhabitants almost the way a film editor would use a swish edit to quickly change scenes. The effect is a quite remarkable game of musical chairs (without the music) in various configurations and combinations that moves the material along quite nicely.

This Studio 180 production makes it three for three in their sixth year of activity after very successful runs with The Laramie Project and The Arab-Israeli Cookbook. And the good news is that stimulating theatre that reflects and engages us in the world can also make for a strong box office. The just concluded run of Judith Thompson's play, Palace of the End (see my review in this issue of AisleSay) was the one authentic hit of the official CanStage season (it also played in the Berkeley Street venue). Thompson just received the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for playwrighting in a ceremony at Houston's Alley Theatre making her the first Canadian to win the award in its 30-year history. Palace of the End, which also centers on the Iraq war, will receive its American premiere this June in New York, produced by Epic Theatre Company at Playwrights Horizons.

Add to this the good news announced last week by artistic producer Martin Bragg at CanStage that Studio 180, along with two other Toronto companies, has been invited to play a more active role in the programming of CanStage's upcoming season and one has reason for renewed optimism that the ailing main stage of the Bluma might once again bloom with original work that is socially relevant, politically engaging and theatrically entertaining. We've just witnessed two great examples of how that can be accomplished.

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