We can thank George W. Bush for this, at least: that Gordon Davidson is not going quietly. To cap his 38-year reign as artistic director of the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Davidson first mulled staging two classics in repertory. Then he heard the White House pitch to reform Social Security.
"I said, 'This is WMD all over again,' " Davidson recalls. "You put fear in people's mind that you have a crisis, and then the next line is: 'I can solve it, but you have to follow me.' "
So Davidson staged the play he'd seen at London's National Theatre the previous fall, David Hare's Iraq-themed Stuff Happens, at the Taper June 5-July 17. Though it takes its title from Donald Rumsfeld's infamous press-conference shrug about the post-war looting of Baghdad, Hare's play portrays the run-up to the war, interpolating finely culled firsthand accounts with imagined dialogue, particularly between the wary, stolid Bush (played in L.A. by Keith Carradine); an eager, anxious Tony Blair (Julian Sands); and, in the play's most sympathetic role, a passionately conflicted Colin Powell (Tyrees Allen).
The result is akin Shakespearean history play, Davidson says, particularly in its demands on his 22-member cast: "The actors are not standing outside: 'I'm not that guy, I'm gonna show you that jerk.' They have to play it like they would play Henry IV or Iago."
Davidson's career has often been charged by political themes, from 1971's Vietnam protest play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which drew the unwanted attention of the FBI, to 1991's Angels in America, another National Theatre/Taper collaboration that preempted Broadway. But how much can one play say, particularly to largely liberal theatre-going audience? After all, the English and American leaders who led the Iraq incursion have both been reelected, however narrowly, and there is certainly no shortage of political coverage and debate in other media.
"I think it's worthwhile being in a room to hear this, to experience it dramatically—and dramatically means also emotionally, which is very different from watching a documentary," says Davidson. "Then together we're confronting the issues of the reasons we went to war. I hope that people can enter this play through many doors, whatever their political persuasion, and come out a different door."
For his part, Davidson couldn't have staged a better exit.