Trump, Clinton and Sinclair Lewis
Folksy-seeming Buzz Windrip (David Kelly) imposes martial law after he's elected president. Photo: Kevin Berne, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Trump, Clinton and Sinclair Lewis

"It Can't Happen Here" at the Berkeley Rep

“It Can’t Happen Here”
Sinclair Lewis
Adapted for stage by Tony Taccone and Bennett Cohen
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Sept. 23—Oct. 11, 2016. Reviewed Oct. 11

There’s something for everyone in this locally-sourced adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here,” and therein lies its fatal flaw. Berkeley Rep’s artistic director Tony Taccone’s enthusiasm for the Federal Theatre Project, an outgrowth of the Depression-era Works Project Administration, prompted an eleventh-hour decision to produce a new adaptation. This occurred because Berkeley Rep felt the hot breath on its neck of the prevailing boogieman amalgam that has Donald Trump as the new Adolph Hitler. The liberal semi-mystical “There are too many coincidences” pre-election hysteria here turns into a kitchen sink full of cliché-ridden portrayals that might as well have taken inspiration from quotidian Facebook memes.

It’s not as if Taccone doesn’t know better. His dissertation was on the Federal Theatre Project, and he says he did the play’s rewrite to stanch weaknesses in the FTP original adaptation that effectively buried the work—until now. In a KQED Forum interview with Michael Krasny, Taccone takes his distance from Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” argument, and offers instead an objective explanation of Trump’s spike in popularity: “If you’re happy with the way things are, you’re probably for Hillary; if you’re not, Trump holds some appeal for you. Hillary wants to fix things here and there, but in the way that Obama called for hope and change, Trump promises to do away with the whole bag of tricks in Washington, mostly traceable to the Clintons.” Taccone laments that democracy is messy, and that there are “no solutions.” This disclaimer becomes the niche receptacle for mixed messages, many of which contradict his otherwise reasoned grasp of the social forces at work. Iconic among them is a program notes misattribution of the quote “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The show opens with an announcement that the Berkeley Rep audience has been recast as a crowd peopling Madison Garden in 1939. Apart from cheering and booing, however, the audience has no role to play on the order of the famous anti-fascist mobilization that took place at an actual Madison Square Garden rally in 1939, where the fascist, Father Charles Coughlin, was to speak, a coincidence that has a program photo of Coughlin as its only reference. While the Communist Party line at the time called for banning Coughlin’s appearance, cooler heads prevailed in the workers’ movement of that era. Instead of setting the dangerous precedent of banning speech that the majority finds distasteful, anti-fascist demonstrators out-mobilized the pro-fascist Coughlin supporters, and succeeded in shutting the Coughlin rally down by their sheer numbers. It was a rather elegant solution in the interests of democracy, and not very “messy” at all, at least compared to what might have happened had Coughlin’s plans triumphed.

In this production, the Coughlin-like preacher Bishop Prang (Charles Shaw Robinson) is portrayed as a simple-minded factotum whose blessing beatifies the reactionary candidate for office, Buzz Windrip (David Kelly), and his check-list proto-fascist election campaign.

Remaining cast members come across as two-dimensional usual suspects: protagonist, Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis), a soured newspaper editor who has given up all hope, but straightens what’s left of his spine to stand up to Windrip and his assorted thugs who are led credibly by Shad Ledue (Scott Coopwood); and Communist worker Karl Pascal (Gerardo Rodriguez), who warns that the system is bankrupt, and when it goes into an irreversible crisis, fascism is the predetermined outcome. The women come packaged as either the happy homemaker Emma Jessup (Sharon Lockwood), the clandestine martyr Mary Jessup (Anna Ishida), or the secret lover-devoted resistance fighter Lorinda Pike (Deidrie Henry). In other words, all the pageantry of 1960s Maoist agit-prop is arrayed as if cast with ex-members of the ex-Progressive Labor Party and the cardboard adversaries they loved to hate.

The story has Windrip appealing to the worst sentiments that underlie bourgeois democracy—antisemitism, anti-unionism, vigilantism, and more—in his quest to consign the Bill of Rights to history’s shredder. Doremus, retired tribune of the people, struggles agonizingly with his conscience, but predictably steps up to lead the underground resistance. Windrip’s hatchet man, Effingham Swan (Robinson) sets out to victimize Doremus and his family, and though they are in imminent danger of being carried off in a gestapo-like raid, Doremus hesitates, but then agrees to flee to Canada. The escape is foiled, and valiant daughter Mary dies in a failed attempt on Swan’s life.

The single contribution of this cartoonish medicine show is to finally lend credibility to the pokerfaced disclaimer, “Any similarities to those living or dead are purely coincidental.” There is no character nor sub-plot that bears any resemblance to Hillary Clinton or her campaign, nor does the current election campaign, even in its most alarming sound bytes, reprise the force and persuasiveness of Coughlin and company. To experience that brand of iron fist, the capitalists would have to draft the likes of Patrick Buchanan as their candidate. While there is much explaining of the relationship between capitalism and its barbaric spawn, fascism, by Karl Pascal, with arcane if germane references by other characters to Communist Party betrayals during that period, we don’t see the practical (making the trains run on time) appeal of fascism that beguiles reasonable people, such as those Taccone described so convincingly to Krasny, that would lead a frenzied middle class down the fascist primrose path.

Perhaps in the 1930s it was necessary to make the case that it can happen here. Today’s world is one of rendition, the death penalty, cops shooting down, choking, and bludgeoning to death unarmed noncriminal working people in the streets. “Suspects” die in jails containing more inmates than in any other country in the world, and so it may not be the challenge it once was to imagine seeing fascism in our time and on our turf. In any case, when the market crashes, unions are smashed, immigrants and minorities beaten bloody, when the infrastructure falls to pieces, and the only remedy is socialism of a kind that bears no relationship to what Karl Pascal stood for, the one thing you can be sure of is that the resulting fight for human dignity will look and sound nothing like “It Can’t Happen Here.”

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.