Erik Abbott as the congresswoman in “#WTF Happened? On the Phenomenon of Trump”
Photo: Duncan Roberts
theatre review - Trump explained
Directed by Christine Probst, Erik Abbott excels in a myriad of roles in an original production by Actors Rep at the TNL this week.
A play entitled "#WTF Happened? On the Phenomenon of Trump" in which one actor plays six different advocates of the 45th president of the United States could easily slip into scything satire. That the show eschews picking off easy targets at will is credit to its creator and performer, Erik Abott, and its director, Christine Probst.
The play opens with a projection montage of Trump supporters, many wearing the iconic “Make America Great Again” baseball cap that Abbott dons for several of the characters he portrays on stage. The auditorium is awash with an unashamedly patriotic country song, which unfortunately cannot fail to bring to mind the wonderful “Freedom isn’t Free” anthem from Team America. But when Erik Abbott shuffles on stage as a salt-of-the-earth, humble and honest coal miner the audience is taken aback. Here is a gentle and well-mannered man who genuinely believes Donald Trump will save the coal industry, that he may again find work picking out black rock from a hole 10 hours a day, seven days a week. A man who wants nothing more than to provide for his family, but who also has dreams for his children. As he leaves the stage, the audience has nothing but sympathy for the coal miner and we understand immediately that this play, a series of perfectly balanced vignettes, is not meant to reinforce our preconceived stereotypes of Trump’s supporters (although in some cases this is unavoidable), but to make us pause and reflect on how he came to win last year’s election.
Abbott returns transformed by a simple tucking of the hair under the cap and a toothy smile into a smug and excitable business owner who loves Trump’s tax policy and delivers platitudes about getting America back to work again, making the country prosperous, alleviating the poor’s reliance on welfare. “The business of America is business,” he exclaims in a most Trumpian manner.
Successive characters address first the audience and then the president directly, and none is more forthright than the elderly congresswoman, the sort of fragile but formidable WASP from the softer side of the Republican party who believes in the great institutions of democracy, and who says she will only stand with Trump if he stands for all Americans. She elicits some laughs with her references to Richard Nixon and the voting age of 21, but her plea to Trump to be a president “for today” is heart wrenching. More comedy, but of the fearful kind, is guaranteed when Abbott dons the baseball cap backwards to play “the guy down the street”. In contrast to the congresswoman with her walking stick, the guy down the street is all pent up energy and brash swagger. He insists he is not a racist or bigot but then spews forth the sort of language, defending it as “common sense”, that even the most forgiving opponent of political correctness could not let slide. It is the sheer physicality of Abbott’s performance, his ability to make each character authentic without slipping into caricature, that makes the play a success.
Up next is a born again Christian who acknowledges that Trump has no exactly behaved as a Christian should--citing specifically his boastful pride and his giving in to the “temptation of Twitter”--but who believes that God is somehow using the president for his purpose. The play climaxes with a manic and highly strung conspiracy theorist--constantly checking the furniture on stage for bugs--who believes revolution is nigh and that the choice people have is between truth and destruction. He even quotes, inadvertently one would assume, Malcolm X by saying that the world order must be dismantled “by any means necessary.” It provides an explosive climax to the play and a stark contrast to the modest coal miner at the beginning. The audience leaves breathless and with new perspectives on the Trump phenomenon, and having been highly entertained.