The Republican National Convention Day Three: The RNC’s production of 'Make America Great Again,' directed by Donald J. Trump

City Paper

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 comedy, set in a large three-ring circus, God (played by Donald J. Trump reprising familiar roles from "Wrestlemania 23" and "The Apprentice") itches to take to the ring and occasionally appears, drawing focus from the tight-rope walkers, clowns, and freaks. In this clever variation on a circus, 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 cuing them when to cheer and howl for the series of acts. (Outside the theater, the immersive experience continued with animal acts; protesters, relegated to a supporting role on the perimeter, were spotted roaming the streets with rabbits, lizards, boa constrictors, and a sad little blind dog.)

The plot is simple, on its surface. It's 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. He encounters a series of obstacles along the way (accusations of plagiarism, double-crossing friends, an insurgent uprising on from those who wish to crown his enemy) but he relies on his band of brothers for help. His tragic flaw, hubris, is the largest obstacle, and he repeatedly lands in trouble as it gallops out of control and threatens his quest in this rollicking comedy.

The visual spectacle, which echoes Monty Python-style free-form riffs that jump about in time and space, is harnessed by regular references to classic drama. One of the strongest performances in "Make America" came during Act 2, when Richard III (played by Ted Cruz) tricked God into giving him the mic to deliver his "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech. Brows knitted in the upper half of his face, a garish smug smile on the lower half, Cruz expertly melds the tragedy/comedy masks as he laments his adversary who "capers nimbly in a lady's chamber." His supple portrayal of self-pity nails this crucial monologue:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, 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 peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
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's 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 tight-rope 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 III. 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 tight-rope 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 simultaneous adds weight to God's ticket—sounding like a 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 shouted. "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 were other scenes, earlier in the play, that similarly threatened to send the audience nodding off to sleep. A few lack-luster monologues—ok, a lot of lack-luster monologues—served 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.

Don't get me started on the clown, 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 began badly with a scene-within-a-scene nod to the day's circus by referencing her own plan to start a circus at age 6. Somehow—after a series of unrelated twists and turns that included references to her high school reunion, her extra poundage, and her children's home school—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 required every speaker to invoke words of wisdom from their parents, she announced: "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 one of many, many, many—did I say many?—ensemble performers who strutted and fretted their moments across the stage with similar staggering insights. 

But this seemed all part of God's plan. Part of the spectacle requires the audience to view the performance with a conscious knowledge 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 speechwriters, advisers, and other experts—leads to a series of mishaps that ultimately call into question his leadership and management of even this small circus, let alone his ability to reign from 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."

We can imagine God in the back shouting "You're fired!" at a technician, adding an unexpectedly layered comic twist to "Make America Great Again."

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