Red Letters, and Blue

Dear George: Letters to the President pushes the envelope — a little

click to enlarge READING THE PRESIDENT'S MAIL: All eight - actors are talented readers, and together radiate - an affecting goodwill. - TREVOR KELLER
READING THE PRESIDENT'S MAIL: All eight actors are talented readers, and together radiate an affecting goodwill.

The only really surprising thing about Dear George: Letters to the President is that someone in the Tampa Bay area is actually producing it. Up-to-the-minute political theater is rare to nonexistent here on the Florida West Coast, and you're more likely to see a play about Warren Harding (Camping With Henry and Tom, a couple of years ago at American Stage) or Teddy Roosevelt (The Bully Pulpit, some months ago in Sarasota) than one about George W. Bush or Hillary Rodham Clinton. Not that there's no demand for topical drama: as Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show regularly demonstrate, there's a sizable audience at least for political satire, and it's only logical to think that the same people who turn to Jay Leno or Bill Maher for commentary on current events would be willing to go to the theater for same. But that would mean local writers willing to produce sketches on short notice, local actors skilled at impersonating political players, and local producers willing to patiently build a following. In other words, it ain't gonna happen this year. So we should be grateful when, mirabile dictu, a political play surfaces on either side of the bay. And that's just what's happened at St. Petersburg's Suncoast Theatre, where Gypsy Productions is bringing us Marcus Woollen's compilation of letters to our president. Woollen solicited letters from Bush supporters and detractors earlier this year and eventually received about 1,500. From these he selected about an hour-and-a-half's worth on every subject from the Patriot Act and the economy to gay marriage and the War in Iraq. Woollen then arranged for 40 theaters nationwide to present Dear George as a reflection of "the climate of the current national debate." The point, apparently, isn't to sway voters toward or away from the President, but to represent both sides of an intensely polarized electorate. True, the climate at the Suncoast is distinctly anti-Bush — a section of the play written by Gypsy's performers leaves no doubt on that question — but still there's something close to balance here, with as many writers lauding Bush as civilization's last best hope as there are correspondents deriding him for tearing up the Bill of Rights.

The problem with balance, though, is that it lacks suspense. After just a few minutes of Dear George we begin to note a repeated pattern — pro followed by con followed by pro followed by con — and we realize that the scheme of things is all too schematic. One of the play's eight "writers" quotes the Presidential Oath: to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution." Then another writer accuses Bush of undermining American liberties, and a third praises Bush for being "on God's side." Call it dramatic Ping-Pong: one writer castigates Bush for uniting most of NATO against us, the next one praises him as America's own King David. Back and forth, back and forth, until you begin to wonder whether we're really learning anything besides the tired fact that there are two sides to every question. Let's "bomb the hell out of Falluja," says one writer, followed by another who insists we have no business being in Iraq. Pro-torture is followed by anti-torture; one writer says "I love you" and the next one calls Bush "you lying sack of Republican shit." Get the message? That's the problem. What starts as an interesting testament to our dividedness eventually becomes tedious. So some love him and some hate him; what else is new? If that's all there is, did we really need this work of theater?

There are some memorable moments in the play, though. A woman writes to inform the president that her son just lost both his legs after a grenade attack in Baghdad, and "I just want to say 'Thank You' for all the great care we have received here at Walter Reed Medical Center." An angry correspondent calls for Bush's impeachment for being "the biggest liar and most incompetent president this country has had, and we have paid the most enormous price for your stupidity in terms of lives, peace and security." One writer suggests that Saddam Hussein only kept Iraq in line by being ruthless, and "that's the way America has to behave!" And a local writer, incensed at Bush's insensitivity to gay liberation, closes with "Fuck you very much." All the writers are competent stylists, by the way, but not one of them is particularly eloquent or idiosyncratic. In fact, strange as it may seem, many of these letters, both for and against, seem to have been written by the same author. Maybe editing has created this appearance of sameness, but whatever the cause, it adds to the eventual monotony of the evening. With 1,500 specimens to choose from, one would have expected greater variety.

The Gypsy production is handsome, however. On a mostly black stage adorned by a red-white-and-blue banner, eight actors stand, scripts in hand, and read this encomium or that philippic. All eight actors — Alisha Campton, Melanie Souza, Daniel Harris, Carlos Milan, Kat Christie, Jennifer Sloane, Larry Buzzeo and Henry McClenahan — are talented readers, and though Trevor Keller's staging is mostly static, the real drama's in — or should be in — the letters. There's also a spirit in the acting — I can't think of a better word for it — of harmony, of a common purpose, of the shared enjoyment of a common mission. So even when the readings lose our interest, the actors continue to radiate an affecting goodwill. This is a real ensemble.

And even with its failings, this political drama is a welcome addition to our theater scene. If Gypsy Productions is willing to offer this area more political dramas — and Bapbomb, next January, may also deserve that label — all local theatergoers may benefit. After all, we've been missing topical theater for many years now, and no one else has seen fit to address this absence. So yes, the present offering is not entirely a success. But maybe it's a harbinger of political plays to come.

I hope it is. And I hope those plays will be nowhere near as equitable — or should I say cautious? — as Dear George.

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