THOUGHTS: It Can’t Happen Here at Berkeley Rep

ICHH ensemble

Cast members in the world premiere of It Can’t Happen Here at Berkeley Rep. Seated: Anna Ishida and Tom Nelis. Standing, left to right: Gerardo Rodriguez, Gabriel Montoya, William Thomas Hodgson, Deidrie Henry, Scott Coopwood, Will Rogers, Alexander Lydon, Carolina Sanchez, Mark Kenneth Smaltz, and Sharon Lockwood.
Photo credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

It Can’t Happen Here was written in a United States still reeling from the Great Depression. Fascism was on the rise in Europe, and there were fears that it would cross the Atlantic.

Senator Huey Long of Louisiana had broken with his party– as well as President Roosevelt– over the New Deal, and he was poised to run as a third party candidate with the support of a fiery, anti-Semitic radio personality, Father Charles Coughlin. Author Sinclair Lewis and his wife Dorothy Thompson, a political reporter, were among those concerned about a possible dictatorship should Roosevelt lose. And thus was born the book that was then adapted into a play.

The parallels to the current political climate are evident in this adaptation by Tony Taccone and Bennett Cohen: a loud-mouthed bigot gains popularity (and eventually the election) seemingly inexplicably. In fact, some lines seem to be taken straight from Donald Trump’s speeches, which, I assume, is deliberate. For the first third of the play, the audience at the performance I attended laughed at those moments in recognition. But the laughter stopped as the play took a darker turn after the election of Buzz Windrup. It was a reminder of one possible 2016 election outcome.

Buzz Windrip

David Kelly (Buzz Windrip) in the world premiere of It Can’t Happen Here at Berkeley Rep.
Photo credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The production itself is a lovely piece of ensemble work. Everyone is involved in all aspects of bringing the story to life, from the characters that could be shallow stereotypes but are fully-fleshed out instead– the liberal newspaper editor (Tom Nelis); the resentful handyman (Shad Ledue); the headstrong daughter (Carolina Sanchez); the demagogue (David Kelly)– to the actors moving props and furniture on and off the stage as the scenes shift. It all coalesces into a smooth performance.

Of course, having been adapted from a book, in addition to dialogue, the play relies a lot on narration in the form of actors giving descriptions of the action. And with all the prose, the play feels long. But those are more the limitations of the text than of the production itself.

It should also be noted that I wouldn’t even be writing about this production for Arts in Color if it weren’t for the creative team’s deliberate decision to have a cast that reflected today’s America. In 1935 the actors would have been all-white, and technically (especially being set in Vermont), the characters are all white. But Berkeley Rep’s cast is a mixture of ethnicities which makes the parallels to today all the more powerful.

Reasons to Go:

  • Humorous and not-so-humorous parallels to current politics
  • #DiversityOnStage: deliberate multi-racial casting
  • The actors break the fourth wall, and there is some audience participation
  • Ensemble is wonderful

Who should go: Adults and teens

Tips:

  • Pre-show docent talks most Tuesdays and Thursdays
  • Post-show discussions October 13, 18, and 28
  • Page to Stage discussion October 10
  • Parking is more limited due to parking garage construction

Themes: Politics, fascism, bigotry

Show information: Through November 6 at Berkeley Rep

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