by Samuel L. Leiter
He never uses the words “the fog of war,” now so memorably attached to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s handling of Vietnam; still, the same idea is behind much of former President George W. Bush’s defense of what happened after his 2003 invasion of Iraq. At least, that’s what he says in The Trial of an American President: What If? by Dick Tarlow (with Bill Smith), now at the Lion.
Early on, the Narrator (Mahira Kakkar), speaking on behalf of the U.N.’s International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague, asks (original punctuation retained):
WHAT IF the world spoke up, roared their anger, that President George W. Bush had to finally be held responsible for his decision in 2003 to attack Iraq? WHAT IF, the pressure grew so strong from so many countries, so many leaders, that the United Nations could not turn a deaf ear any longer. WHAT IF, the United National Security Council asked the International Criminal Court to bring President Bush to trial?
Then comes an even bigger question: “what if” Bush, legally entitled to decline, not only agreed to stand trial, with the threat of punishment if found to be a war criminal, but to do so without benefit of legal counsel, choosing instead to defend himself?
Thus commences this fantasy docudrama: “fantasy,” as the subtitle suggests, because the premise is imaginary, and “docudrama” because its fact-based information is offered in the fashion of a documentary courtroom drama, albeit one conducted in a reductionist theatrical manner.
For the many who believe that Bush, self-described as a “war president,” not only began an unjustified war in the wake of 9/11 but incited problems that have become exponentially worse with the rise of ISIS, among other cancers, seeing him as an ICC dartboard target will likely be a mild cathartic, no matter how rigged against him the playwriting may be.
Sitting in a leather chair on Ann Beyersdorfer’s spare set, and rising only occasionally, Bush (Tony Carlin) listens as a Prosecutor (Michael Rogers), notepad in hand and dressed in a blue judicial robe, drills the ex-president over three days. All the familiar names are invoked—Cheney, Rumsfeld, Kerry, Bin-Laden, Blair, and others—as the accusations fly regarding the overthrow of Saddam, weapons of mass destruction, Fallujah, Blackwater, torture/waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, indiscriminate killing of civilians, and so on. Meanwhile, nine spectators in the front rows, having been given ballots, sit in judgment.
Extensive video and still projections (produced and edited by Philip Coccioletti and Sugarcamp Productions; designed by Kevan Loney), including printed information and talking-head commentary from victims (played by actors), amplify and support the arguments (mainly the prosecution’s). If you weren’t paying attention back then, consider this play a valuable history lesson. If you were, you won’t hear anything you didn’t already know.
Through it all, Bush cites his faith in God and the Bible, his noble intentions on behalf of democracy, his denial of conspiratorial theories, and his excusing the U.S. military’s questionable and excessive responses as innocent mistakes and/or the nature of war. Carlin does his best to make the man sympathetic; the very fact that Bush has put his neck on the line by appearing signals his feelings of righteousness, even, perhaps, implying a sense of martyrdom.
Stephen Eich’s direction sustains the give and take between the Prosecutor and Bush. Carlin, speaking with a Texas twang in a subdued tone, makes a reasonably believable Bush, although he should modify the pecking head movements, while Rogers, in a conventional role with no backstory, uses a vaguely foreign accent, and is suitably probing. Kakkar’s Narrator, a South Asian woman representing the Hague, speaks with crisp authority.
The Trial of an American President ends with the Narrator reading the vote of that performance’s jury. Given the mountain of condemnatory evidence and the lack of anything but a personalized response, I’d be surprised if the verdict weren’t always more or less the same.
The Trial of an American President: What If?
Lion Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through October 15
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).