Berkeley Rep's 'It Can't Happen Here' is All Play and No Politics

Buzz Windrip (David Kelly) threatens the American Republic with a sleazy charisma in 'It Can't Happen Here' at the Berkeley Rep. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s artistic director Tony Taccone reminds us in his program notes that he works for a not-for-profit organization, and that he is “forbidden, by law, to take political positions.” Though he quickly assures us that he and Berkeley Rep can overcome these limitations, “in the work we produce and the culture we create," and rather wistfully adds, “there’s nothing to stop you from imagining my opinion.”

Since the Rep is opening its season with the premiere of Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen’s adaption of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 anti-fascist novel, It Can’t Happen Here, it seems impossible not to “imagine” what Taccone, the theater, Berkeley, or anyone else in the Bay Area thinks. Yet in raising that question, Taccone inadvertently uncovers a hornet's nest of political assumptions that the production leaves unattended and unanswered.

The play begins with the actors prepping us on how to behave, respond, and think. We will be expected to perform the role of crowd energetically, no matter our true political feelings. We are told that the casting is not historically accurate in case anyone has “a problem with this,” and that “any resemblance in the play to current events is purely coincidental." There are many winking asides after this last comment.

Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis) surrounded by his family and the community of Fort Beulah, Vermont in 'It Can't Happen Here' at the Berkeley Rep.
Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis) surrounded by his family and the community of Fort Beulah, Vermont in 'It Can't Happen Here' at the Berkeley Rep. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

It’s clear that the writers and the company have no idea of how to approach the material, and it speaks to the paucity of their theatrical imagination that their first move is an attempt at a faux-Brechtian engagement with the audience. Why bother to break the fourth wall to merely comfort and assure us that we all really understand what’s going on, that we all get the connections, and that we’re all in this together? I’m not even sure that’s a position from which you can think in a political manner.

From there, the play shifts registers to a rather old-fashioned mode of presentation, where everything is about the set-up, or, in the parlance of television show runners, "world building." We meet our hero, the liberal, free-thinking journalist Doremus Jessup, his large family (almost impossible to keep track of or care for), and his community of extended family members and civic leaders. And we learn what might constitute a normal day in Fort Beulah, Vermont -- a Fourth of July picnic -- all the while catching glimpses (through a political meeting, a radio broadcast and other vignettes) of the rise of right-wing populist Buzz Windrip (a terrific David Kelly). It’s a long and laborsome slog to get to the beginnings of anything approaching drama.

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Drama arrives at last, if only for a moment, about 25 minutes into the play, when Jessup’s eldest son Phillip argues that Windrip and his “lost man” movement are addressing real problems. Phillip uses his father’s handyman, Shad, as a ready example. It’s the first time in the play we get an inkling of real political stakes.

But sadly, Taccone and Cohen shut it down. Neither Phillip nor Shad are dramatically significant, and yet both are unnecessarily vile: Phillip treats his brother-in-law’s murder with a high-handed disdain, and Shad is portrayed as nothing more than a jack-booted thug. What the play fears most is not the rise of fascism, but rather the presence of any idea that might discomfort a moderately wealthy liberal.

Perhaps Taccone and Cohen are unconsciously feeling the influence of the glut of Young Adult comics, novels, and movies depicting dystopian worlds. Like the teenage mind they’re produced for, these fantasies of rebellion are quick to equate rules and authority with corruption. That’s equally true of It Can’t Happen Here, a work that's not truly interested in eliciting debate, confrontation or thinking -- only the fantasy of what it might feel like to play at politics.

Without any real countervailing positions, all we’re left with is left-wing melodrama: the crusading journalist fighting an emergent fascist state. To say that Jessup suffers and fights is essentially to say that that’s what the fantasy requires. He must speak out, he must be threatened, he must be arrested, he must be tortured, he must survive, he must join the resistance, and he must go on. It’s a well-worn dream, and not anything close to political thought or critique.

(L to R) Buck Titus (David Kelly), Karl Pascal (Gerardo Rodriguez), Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis), and John Pollikop (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) are political prisoners in 'It Can't Happen Here' at the Berkeley Rep.
(L to R) Buck Titus (David Kelly), Karl Pascal (Gerardo Rodriguez), Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis), and John Pollikop (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) are political prisoners in 'It Can't Happen Here' at the Berkeley Rep. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

In producing It Can’t Happen Here, the Rep is, of course, warning that it very well could happen here. If you view Donald Trump as an existential threat to American democracy, then the warning is true enough; it could happen here and we should be worried. Yet the threat, as the play presents it, is an unconvincing jumble of clichés, and its politics no more than a desire to play hero in a disaster. As such, it falls in line with all those aforementioned teenage dystopias -- The Hunger Games, The Giver, Divergent -- that require fascist regimes in order for their young heroes and the audiences who applaud them to feel alive, real, and significant.

The last line of the Berkeley Rep's mission statement says: “Berkeley Rep aspires to use theater as a means to challenge, thrill, and galvanize what is best in the human spirit.” The question is: whose human spirit? In this play, the answer is self-congratulatory: We are selfless heroes who see the unique threats to the American Republic, and those who might feel otherwise are monsters. For all the dangers that Trump poses, Berkeley Rep’s response feels equally dangerous and just as much a fantasy.

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'It Can't Happen Here' runs through Sunday, Nov. 6 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information, click here.

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