Political theater and baby carrots

At Hand2Mouth, a crowd of theater people takes in the first presidential debate. At least the snacks were good.

Hand2Mouth. It’s the name of a local small theater company, and also aptly describes the pose many Portlanders struck Monday night while watching the first Clinton/Trump debate. The 15-year-old company, whose defining characteristics include a fourth-wall-puncturing, “meta” perspective and a mostly female membership, couldn’t resist the opportunity to screen the uniquely surreal and female-centric political spectacle in its also-appropriately-named venue: the Shout House. With a 40-plus-person turnout, the event seems to have doubled as a successful fundraiser.

“Behind me to my left, there’s an Adult Crying Area,” announced event host Tex Clark, nattily dressed in a navy blue suit. “We have lotion tissues. At the back of the room, we have snacks and alcohol, and we may be taking dance breaks as necessary.” Clark went on to explain that Hand2Mouth had initially planned one more amenity: an outdoor pyre upon which attendees could “burn whatever was left of their political idealism.” (Their city burn permit was denied, but the statement itself left us groping for the metaphorical aloe.)

Call-and-response theater at Hand2Mouth. Lots and lots of response.

Call-and-response theater at Hand2Mouth. Lots and lots of response.

Well-known local actor Tony Green offered a few words, too, sharing a potent childhood memory of his Latina mother being yelled at in a grocery store line as she waited to cash his Anglo father’s Air Force disability check by a man who assumed she was a “Mexican taking welfare.” He explained how such early experiences and his current career in social services have sensitized him to Trump’s hateful rhetoric and inaccurate assumptions. The audience appeared to broadly agree.

Judging by the audience’s mingled laughter, applause and groans, any passerby would swear that the event was a theater production. For my own part—however cynical—I already consider theater, politics, and religion at least deeply intertwined, if not interchangeable. Having already reviewed Canadian Prime Ministers and the Dalai Lama from a purely performance standpoint, I decided I may as well take notes on how the premiere Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump Vaudeville Puppet Clown Show played to an audience of Portland theater people. Here are highlights:

Hillary’s entrance raised a brief chant of “Pant-suit! Pant-suit!”

The line “Trumped up trickle-down” earned a “Hey-O!”

“I know you believe in your own reality” got the biggest laugh, while the idea of “cutting taxes big league” got the first scoff.

Spontaneous applause for stop and frisk being found unconstitutional.

Some joker answered every instance of the words “law and order” by singing the TV show’s signature two-note refrain.

Jeers on Trump’s assertion that he’s built his relationship with the black community “over the last little while.”

Indignant groans when he suggested a hacker might be someone who weighs 400 pounds.

Guffaws on “The record shows I’m right,” rising to venue-suitable shouts as Trump declared that he has “better judgment and a better temperament” than Clinton.

From there, the room devolved into a clamor of crosstalk, mostly voicing indignation at Trump and support for Clinton. Increasingly, the crowd left their seats to chomp on baby carrots and hummus, or to get a much-needed drink.

From a performative standpoint, I’d say this vignette is not believable. This villain is too broadly drawn; this protagonist too wooden. I’d say the script writer didn’t do enough research to give the rhetorical points the necessary technical jargon and detail. The dialogue sounds like it’s being delivered not just to children, but by them. Trump’s talk of “stopping bad people” and “fixing things” is to rhetoric what Corey Feldman’s moves are to dancing: flailing strokes that imitate the real thing, while not quite managing it. The vagaries of the character’s purpose are practically Beckett-esque, leaving the audience to wonder, “Are these really comments, or a comment on the futility of comments?”

As for the Clinton character: with a foil like Trump, she needed little personal charisma and few if any brilliant lines to play protagonist. Saying “Just listen to what you heard,” after a tirade from Trump was what passed for a zinger. Opposite anyone else, she might seem smug, harsh, and slow to react. Opposite Trump, she sparkled—or rather glinted—by comparison.

The debates’ abrupt end was unsatisfying, clipped at a climax of conflict with no denouement. Maybe that’s because it’s the first in a series? Or maybe there simply is no resolution. Disbelief, meanwhile, was hardly suspended. It persisted, and even grew, throughout the show. In case you were wondering, nobody used the Adult Crying Area. Also, nobody took a dance break or stuck around for the proposed dance party. The audience may have been rooting for one character, but they clearly weren’t feeling it too deeply.

If this were a script, it would have to push harder. The protagonist would have to badger the antagonist into blurting something inarguably, spontaneously shocking—then stop short to let the audience gasp. Or the antagonist would have to successfully, expertly twist the protagonist’s measured words until the protagonist tore up the script and broke into a heartfelt, inspiring monologue. Or the back-and-forth banter would have to get quicker, with both parties snapping one-liners at lightning speed. That said, while it’s not up to snuff as a script, this debate was clearly mere theater. And without baby carrots and friendly banter, it would’ve been unbearable.












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