The RNC's production of "Make America Great Again," directed by Donald J. Trump and written by a rambling mass of "ordinary Americans" and a few politicians, features a dazzling ensemble of actors who deliver performances so powerful one almost thinks they're real.
In the world premiere of this rollicking comedy, set in a large three-ring circus, God (played by Donald J. Trump reprising familiar roles from "Wrestlemania23" and "The Apprentice") has been temporarily banished from the spotlight but is itching to take to the ring—and huffs and puffs from the sidelines in a series of cameos, drawing focus from the tight-rope walkers, clowns, and freaks. With a nod to the circus-setting, the director gives the audience an immersive experience, selling popcorn and hot dogs in the lobby, rolling out tatty red carpets to cover tent cables, and exhorting theater-goers to cheer and howl for the series of acts. Outside the theater proper, the fully immersive experience spills onto the streets of Cleveland, with an inspired round-the-clock Allan Kaprow-style "happening." Hewing to the circus mise-en-scene, the director creates a sprawling set of alleys and squares outside the gates that summon up the "crazy prophets" scene in "Life of Brian" and deftly evokes a carnival atmosphere. Here, God's supporters argue with God's detractors and, as they wait for God to reveal the meaning of life, perform tricks for the media scribes, including animal acts; this reviewer spotted prophets with rabbits, lizards, boa constrictors, and a sad, little blind dog.
Inside the Quicken Loans Arena, the play unfolds in agonizingly slow real time.
The plot is simple, on its surface. "Make America Great Again" is a quest story, in the tradition of "Lord of the Rings," "The Hunger Games," or "The Odyssey." But in "Make America Great Again," our hero, God, is determined to step out of heaven—here depicted as a golden tower with Trump emblazoned across the top—to mingle with the minions as he struggles to make his way to the White House. (The playwright is clearly setting the pieces in place for a series; watch for the sequel as our truculent hero battles for world domination.)
Formulaic in structure, the plot complicates our hero's journey with the requisite series of obstacles along the way (accusations of plagiarism, double-crossing friends, turncoat biographers, an insurgent uprising from those who wish to crown his enemy) but he relies on his band of brothers and his own indomitable spirit to overcome them. Never seen, but frequently referenced, is God's arch-enemy, Bitch. Performers regularly invoke the nemesis to whip the blood-thirsty crowd into an interactive frenzy of "boos" and calls to costume Bitch in prison stripes. The all-knowing God understands he needs this nemesis, regularly embellishing the saboteur's flaws to drive soldiers to his side. But his own tragic flaw, hubris, poses challenges, and he repeatedly lands in trouble as it gallops out of control and threatens his quest in this lively farce.
The play opens slowly. Act I is hampered by too much exposition about a traditional RNC party platform that God will ultimately completely ignore. Act II, when state delegates vote to support God, leans heavily on a predictable roll call that, even with the savvy theater-goer's "willing suspension of disbelief" fails to produce a believable incarnation of democracy.
But things pick up after that when the director astutely abandons naturalism in favor of a more presentational style. Ramping up the visual spectacle with Monty Python-style free-form riffs that jump about in time and space, the script is harnessed by regular references to classic drama, the Bible, and even Disney.
Enter the ingenue Belle (played with halting precision by the striking Melania Trump). Belle, of course, has left behind her dour, eastern European village and traded in her freedom for a monied life with The Beast, who she does her best to love despite his outward appearance. She must pay a price for landing the princess gig and is directed to kiss the Beast, helping people see behind the ranting exterior of the creature, to notice that he is really God (New Testament, benevolent God, that is, not Old Testament smite-the-sinners God). No mean feat.
She performs valiantly. "He is tough when he has to be but he is also kind and fair and caring," she says. "This kindness is not always noted, but it is there for all to see. That is one reason I fell in love with him to begin with."
She never manages to cite a single example of God's benevolence—trust me, she seems to say—but the audience, swayed by the sexy supermodel, succumb to her charms. (When it is revealed later in the act that she plagiarized the script from Disney, the crowd remains loyal, determined not to let reality interfere with fantasy. "I heard two separate speeches," a Maryland delegate tells this reviewer. "I didn't hear what other people heard. Maybe there's something wrong with me because I didn't hear it.")
One of the strongest performances in "Make America" comes during Act 3, when Richard III (played by Ted Cruz) tricks God into giving him the mic to deliver his "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech. Brows knitted, a Pinocchio nose plastered on the upper half of his face, a garish smug smile on the lower half, Richard laments his adversary who "capers nimbly in a nominee's chamber." His supple portrayal of self-pity nails this pivotal monologue:
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want the Party's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling RNC;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair delegate count,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Trump supporters,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into the political wilderness scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of Trump,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the Jumbotron
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a nominee,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
He goes on to introduce his devious plan to undercut God by urging everyone to "vote their conscience." The villain draws boos from the crowd before a hook pulls him from the stage, as he mutters, "Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Newt comes."
Newt, a tightrope walker skillfully played by Newt Gingrich, steps into the spotlight to assume his rightful place as the also-kinda-sorta-wanted-this-job-or-at-least-VP. He displays his fealty to God the King and does some fancy footwork to quell the booing masses. Richard III doesn't want to steal the crown, he tells the lynch mob of peasants, assuring them that they have "misunderstood" Richard. Lapsing out of iambic pentameter for emphasis, Newt restates the crucial passage, "you can vote your conscience for anyone who will uphold the Constitution." He adds: "[T]here is only one candidate who will support the Constitution."
With his lustrous voice, Newt delicately prances across the tightrope playing the bellicose pot-bellied politician to the hilt, determined to re-focus the storyline from Richard III back to God while simultaneously angling for a position in God's cabinet. It is a masterful performance by an experienced actor in which he adds weight to God's ticket—sounding like a proper Beltway wonk with a list of data and figures that veer dangerously close to putting the audience to sleep—then shifting tone abruptly to whip the audience into a furious frenzy of indignation. "We are at war," he shouts. "We are at war with radical Islamists! They are determined to kill us! They are stronger than we admit! And there is no substitute for victory!"
There are other scenes, earlier in the play, that similarly threaten to send the audience nodding off to sleep. A few lack-luster monologues—okay, a lot of lack-luster monologues—serve as filler during Acts 1 and 2 where the hyper-realism of the "ordinary Americans" trotting across the stage with halting, under-rehearsed, mundane testimonials becomes jarring against the exaggerated theatricality of the other performers.
And don't get me started on the clowns, like Michelle Van Etten, for example, some random small business owner who sells multivitamins or fashion or toxic-free makeup or pesticide-free coffee or something (no one really seems to know for sure) whose monologue begins badly with a scene-within-a-scene nod to the day's circus by referencing her own plan to start a circus at age six. Somehow—after a series of unrelated twists and turns that include references to her high school reunion, her extra poundage, and her children's home schooling—that story led to this fresh epiphany: "I am living the American dream. But that dream is in jeopardy." Because a motif of the evening requires every speaker to quote words of wisdom from their parents before they're allowed to step from the stage, she announces: "My dad said, 'Any dream you have you can do, as long as you're willing to do the work it takes to get the job done.'"
Van Etten was but one in a parade of ensemble performers who offered similar staggering insights.
But this was all part of God's plan. The spectacle's subtext relies on the audience being aware that God, like the Wizard of Oz, if I may mix my metaphors, is back behind the curtain running the show. The humor comes from misses, as well as the hits, since God's efforts to tame his hubris mean he must relegate aspects of the circus to others if he is to succeed in his quest for glory—and he clearly struggles with this. His hunger to control everything—rather than delegating to proper scriptwriters, designers, technicians, and other story spinners—leads to a series of mishaps that ultimately call into question his leadership and management of even this small circus, let alone his quest for the Oval Office.
It is a spectacularly telling moment when Hamlet (played by God's son, Eric Trump) begins to speak and a giant technical failure causes all the jumbotrons in the circus tent to flicker and blink wildly before dying completely for the next hour (I'm sure this was on purpose) just as Hamlet proclaims his disgust for God's opponents and their "government incompetence and ineptitude."
The audience imagines God in the back shouting, "You're fired!" at a technician, adding an unexpectedly layered comic twist to "Make America Great Again."
But it is the final act, which takes an unexpectedly dark turn that cinches the show. With an inspired nod to Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will," God-the-Fuhrer finally takes the stage in front of the thundering crowd.
Leading theatre-goers in a chant of "USA! USA! USA!," a rousing number that with its mounting pulse lures them toward his charismatic nationalism, God then shifts registers. Yes, you can be part of my movement, he seems to say in calming the crowd, but let me describe what fealty means.
He begins this masterful monologue with seductive modesty, professing surprise that he has collected more votes than any other candidate in the history of the Republican party. "Who would have believed this?" he marvels. "Who would have believed this?"
God the creator of the universe goes on to reiterate his absolute authority and promises to fix every single solitary thing in the whole wide world because he is God, and he can.
He vows to fix our trade agreements, free college students from debt, cut taxes, lift restrictions on the production of American energy, free LGBTQ citizens from oppression, restore law and order in the country, eliminate violence in our cities, get rid of terrorists, make Americans rich like him, create jobs, give young people hope, reform healthcare, and, "fix TSA at the airports," he says, "which is a total disaster."
He does not provide details on how he will accomplish these things because he is God, and doesn't have to.
He wags his finger and, growing even redder in the face than usual, yells his way through the furious, hour-plus soliloquy. As the crowd roars its appreciation, he delivers the show's titular line, swearing, "We will make America Great Again!"
The finale arrives but there is a moment—a technical glitch? the audience wonders—when the balloons fail to sail from the ceiling on cue. A septuagenarian meth-head plant in the audience (played convincingly by Rudy Giuliani) yells "Where the fuck are the balloons?" and the, finally, a sea of red, white, and blue inflated Mylar falls from the ceiling while the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" pours, ironically, out of the loud speakers. Keith Richards, of course, famously pulled a knife on Trump in Atlantic City once and the band has filed cease and desist orders to try and keep our hero from playing their music, but God, in this delicious twist at the end, always gets what he needs.
"Make America Great Again" will be running all fall at locations across the U.S. Call 1-800-DJT-RUMP for a detailed list of venues and show times.
For City Paper's assessment of "Stronger Together," Hillary Clinton's work-in-progress show in Philly this week, go to citypaper.com.