Monday, October 3, 2016

"It Can't Happen Here"

It Can’t Happen Here
Adapted by Tony Taccone & Bennett S. Cohen
From the Novel by Sinclair Lewis

The Cast of It Can't Happen Here
On an immense wooden floor surrounded by tall brick walls, a group of Ft. Beulah, Vermont townspeople of all shapes, colors, and sizes gathers to set the 1936 scene in the U.S:  race riots in cities across the land, the gap bigger than ever between rich and poor, worst droughts ever, foreign wars creating local concern, and a right-wing fanatic running for president.  Needless to say, more than a few chuckles and heads shaking in sad recognition occur when the comparisons feel all too contemporarily familiar to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre audience. 

As the world premiere adaptation by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, It Can’t Happen Here, got underway, the parallels of the first act to our current headlines become funnier and scarier at the same time.  Here before us is a reproduction of Sinclair Lewis’ warning to the world about the Fascism, nationalism, and xenophobia of the mid-1930s that was sweeping much of the world and was also cropping up all across America.  Here also before us are too many of the same sound-bites, angry talking heads, and normal-looking townspeople ready to rally for the far right that we in the audience are seeing and hearing all around us eighty years later.

Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis) Listens with Friends & Family
As the play opens, the ’36 presidential election is well underway, and President Roosevelt’s popularity and support is barely at the one-third mark.  An angry sounding, fist-raising Mrs. Gimmitch (Sharon Lockwood) is getting both cheers and jeers as she sounds forth her message at a Ft. Beulah Rotary Club meeting, calling for “young Christians learning war-like skills to rid our country of unwelcome elements” (i.e., immigrants, commies, probably Jews, etc.).  She is an avid supporter of Buzz Windrip, the right-wing candidate supported by evangelicals (like the radio-popular voice of the religious right, Bishop Prang).  This southern-sounding blowhard (with hair flung across to the right side of his head) rails about the nasty things journalists are saying against him, makes up facts, and acts as his own publicity man; and he is described by others as having “a real feel for the people and a great business sense.”  The town’s respected newspaper editor of The Vermont Vigilance, Doremus Jessup, and his friend Buck Titus marvel that “he seems hell-bent in offending everyone” and that “he loves publicity.”  The editor later worries, “Six month ago, I would say there’s no way in God’s green earth he could be elected, but now ...”.

After a half hour or so, if there were any doubt that the Berkeley Rep adapters of Lewis’s novel did not have a certain, current candidate with a large mop of blonde hair and a big propensity for constant publicity of his radical statements in their minds as they penned this script, that doubt is totally erased.  It Can’t Happen Here takes the pre-election once-certainties that Brexit would not be approved, that the Philippines would not elect a dangerous loudmouth, or that Columbia would for sure ratify a peace accord with the rebels (all of which of course proved very wrong) and poses to its audience, how sure are you that the same cannot happen here in the U.S.?  The play goes a step further to show, at least in 1936 and the years following, what might have happened had the right-wing candidate won, with the specters of deputized citizen militias, declared marshal law, and even concentration camps rising up not just in Germany, but here in the U.S.

Lisa Peterson directs the large cast who are constantly on the move, in and out of rapidly changing scenes where they reset the props and often switch to other character roles.  The overall effect at times feels like Our Town and at other times, like we are in a park watching a San Francisco Mime Troupe protest play.  The decision to cast this 1936 play in Vermont with people of color and with women in roles that do not fit those times but more reflect our era increases the parallels to the similar political circumstances today of that yesteryear, lily-white period.

Throughout the story’s telling, the strolling folks offer parenthetical remarks and verbal scene setters before plunging into the next scene, with those scenes often marked in precisely bounded boundaries and appropriate moods by the excellent lighting design of Alexander V. Nichols.  Set pieces designed by Rachel Hauck appear and disappear with ease and almost without any interruption of action, given the choreographing of the cast and the use of the time to set up the next scene in their comments to the audience.  Meg Neville’s costumes beautifully establish the times and the positions in society and become darker and more menacing as the second act’s post-election, apocalyptic occurrences unfold.  Paul James Prendergast has both composed music and created the sounds of crowds, jails, and snow-packed back roads to enhance the many and varied scenes of the play.

Tom Nelis is the town’s editor, Doremus Jessup, bringing homespun, high integrity aspects that Jimmy Stewart often showed on the big screen.  Described by his daughter, Sissy (Carolina Sanchez), as “the man who’s favorite bedtime story was Thomas Jefferson,” Doremus is the advocate for justice and trusted friend to all who deeply espouses freedom and equality.  Mr. Nelis fully embodies a believable man of the local press who must make tough decisions when to acquiesce for the sake of his family’s safety and when to risk everything in order to say ‘enough is enough.’

David Nellis as Bizz Windrip
The cast is fully populated with wonderfully nuanced, peculiar, frightening, and heroic characters -- all skillfully portrayed by each member.  If there are particular stand-outs, among them would be David Kelly who takes on a Dr. Jeckyl/Mr. Hyde pair of roles by playing both the upstanding farmer Buck Titus and the paramount of evil himself, Buzz Windrip.  In each role, he brings the voice, the stance, and the demeanor to make us believe his words and his beliefs – both the good and the bad. 

Excellent also is Deidre Henry as the town’s saloon keeper, Lorinda Pike, who brings moxie, courage, and passion as well as compassion to a woman who becomes key to underground resistance in the ‘new order’ of the play’s second half.  Gerardo Rodriguez and Mark Kenneth Smaltz are auto mechanic friends who represent in fun and pointed manners the communist and socialist thinking of the times.  Scott Coopwood is a sleazy, sneaky, and altogether scary Shad Ledue, long-time employee of the Jessup family who ‘rises’ to high ranks in the Nazi-like Minutemen Militia.  Charles Shaw Robinson is equally detestable, as well he should be, as both the hateful man of God, Bishop Prang, and as an Ivy League lawyer-turned-citizen-judge-and-jury for the rampaging, murdering Militia.  The list goes on and on for a cast that delivers in all the parts portrayed in this panoramic collection of scenes that become more and more depressing and fatalistic by the passing minute of the play’s one hundred twenty.

If there is a fault of the script and the overall fine production, it is perhaps that as the play progresses, melodrama takes over; and the stage becomes a bit too similar to the propaganda films of the war-year 1940s or of the communist-fearing 1950s.  It also feels like this play is preaching to the choir as it plays to its Berkeley audiences.  No fear, doubt, or possible prediction that the play raises has probably not been felt or discussed by every single person there.  Perhaps if the play were presented in some red state where the Trump vote and win seems inevitable, the play might cause some needed discussion; but here in the Bay Area, it feels like, “Yeah, we already know all that.”

But in terms of production and acting quality overall, Berkeley Repertory Company certainly can be proud of this world premiere.  It Can’t Happen Here makes its points loud and clear, hopefully fully convincing every audience member to vote in November and to hit the phone banks for their candidates of choice between now and then.

Rating: 4 E

It Can’t Happen Here continues through November 6, 2016 (two days before Election Day) at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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