I can say this much about the night my dad took me to my first (and last) professional wrestling match, upward of 40 years ago: Very little has surprised me about American politics ever since.
For a cause no greater than an evening's entertainment, the producers deftly manipulated the blood lust of thousands that one night in a large and darkened coliseum in Greensboro.
As the heels in the title bout pulled trick after dirty trick, the mob we were a part of became totally unglued, screaming by the end for violent retribution. So what if the grapplers in the ring were only acting? The audience wasn't: A full-scale brawl broke out at ringside just as my father yanked me out of there.
Since then, election-year politics, and the alleged military imperatives strewn among the intervening years, have achieved much the same, and much worse, with the American body politic. In the 2011 novella Donald—the stage adaptation by Tony Perucci premiered last week at Manbites Dog Theater—two young people confront retired former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a research library, requesting "baselines for productive dialogue" prior to his testifying before an unnamed commission. When Rumsfeld blows them off, their associates kidnap him that night, plunging him into the system of extraordinary rendition and shadowy intelligence techniques that he put in place during the administration of George W. Bush.
Reason enough, all told, for that spider of dread slowly crawling up the back of my neck as I entered the black-walled room in Durham on Friday night. Were we about to see a graphic theatrical recital of expanded interrogation techniques, like one I called for in these pages several years ago, staged as an exposé and an act of public witness? Or had we gathered as an audience for a communal revenge fantasy instead? Were we there for justice, or had we come for blood?
Under Perucci's direction, Jay O'Berski's riveting performance as Rumsfeld belongs in the same league as Derrick Ivey's achievement in the title role of Manbites Dog's production of Nixon's Nixon back in 2005. In addition to Rumsfeld's trademark needling voice, tight smile and bespectacled squint, O'Berski and Perucci have given this simulacrum a full complement of revealing physical tells, from a pinkie thrust subliminally conveying a verbal takedown to a creepy, claw-like gesture accompanying a description of intimacy. Finely detailed work, indeed.
A strong ensemble supports this effective, economical adaptation. As Rumsfeld's wife, J. Evarts effortlessly evinces what the novel terms "the perfect balance of mannered and real." Lucius Robinson, Jeffrey Detwiler and Rajeev Rajendran depict interrogators of varying tact and sadism. Brycen McCrary convinces us as one of several guards, while projected live-time video of a costumed and wigged Dana Marks in extreme close-up conveys the unspoken thoughts of the title character as events unfold.
At the center of the minimal but striking set (which was designed by the protean O'Berski), Alex Maness' jaw-dropping live and pre-recorded video montages project on a four-sided ghost box made of sheet plastic or scrim. These form the walls of Rumsfeld's cell and, once the approved psychological countermeasures (incorporating Quran Karriem's remarkably textured sound design) are fully deployed, the surfaces of his nightmares.
When dealing with the historic horrors of racism, Nazism and political torture, it's taken as a given: A show has to stop somewhere short of complete embodiment. That reality frequently gives even the most well-intentioned of such productions the feel of a pulled punch.
But Donald avoids that fate more than many such shows, despite an abortive waterboarding scene toward the end. Though Rumsfeld yells "You can't fake-drown character" at one point, the system he's designed proves that wrong, gradually disabling his mind as well as his body.
Even so, one premise on which Donald hinges remains regrettably unbelievable. The National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Obama in December ensures that the detention facility on Guantanamo Bay will remain open for the foreseeable future. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticized "the failure to ensure accountability" for serious violations there, "including torture." And after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's recent unveiling of an "agile, lethal and readily deployable" model for the American military, an article in Foreign Policy last week opened with the question, "Is Donald Rumsfeld still at work in the Pentagon?"
With these developments, it's clear: If the nameless commission invoked at the beginning of Donald actually exists, it's already been informed of the title character's actions—and, tragically, no changes have been found necessary.