Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Jeffrey Hatcher is one of the most prolific playwrights writing today, with plays addressing a broad range of topics from 17th century Shakespearean actors (Compleat Female Stage Beauty) to the Holocaust (Korczak's Children), from high school drug dealing (Good 'n' Plenty) to stage legends Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt (Ten Chimneys. Why, then, not a dark comedy about the intersection of totalitarian dictatorships and literary fiction? That's just what our local hero has served up with Strongman's Ghost, an 80-minute one-act recently presented in this year's Fresh Ink Series at Illusion Theater.
Hatcher's program notes state that his play was inspired by Saddam Hussein, who, in addition to his other misguided accomplishments, was a novelist who "had written a number of almost unreadable books." It seems that a fair number of authoritarian rulers have tried their hand at fiction, with rumors of ghost writers being pressed into service. Hatcher concocts an unnamed dictator (calling him the General) of an unnamed republic, who is the "author" of seventeen novels, works that eerily mirror the events and personages of his regime. A literature professor of middling stature is brought in for a forced interview that makes him the newest of the General's ghost writers, to complete the eighteenth work. The places, the people, and the chain of eventsthese are the General's inventions. The Writer needs only to make those into sentences and paragraphs on the page.
But this Writer is different from the others. He inserts his own ideas of how the General's narrative should flow. Not only that, the General's second in commandthe Coloneland the Guard who oversees the Writer's confinement begin to urge their views on the unspooling tale. The premise that "truth is stranger than fiction" becomes convoluted by the increasing resemblance between the fiction and the truth. With each of the characters having a keen interest in the outcome, who, in the end, has control over the story and its legacy?
Strongman's Ghost is a dark tale, but Hatcher has leavened it throughout with gallows humor and has worked enough surprises into the play to keep the audience engaged in guessing who will do what to whom when. The play is fun, while thought provoking in its slant on the banality of evil and the addictive quality of power. It most certainly warrants continued development to address some of the holes in the plotfor example, inconsistencies in the characterization of the Guard, who at times seems a buffoon, at other times a cunning adversary, and for a moment shows a glimmer of being an ally to the Writer. There are small bits here and there that lead nowhere, such as the General making a point to say he has no children (my limited knowledge of military dictators is that most of them sire many children) without this having any bearing on the plot. Brushing up some rough edges like these should be no great challenge to a writer of Hatcher's skill, and will make the play even tighter, with a stronger narrative thrust from beginning to end.
Fresh Ink gives works-in-progress productions in which actors typically have script in hand, lack costumes, and enact the play with a minimum of scenic, lighting and sound elements. Given the bare bones nature of the staging, director Michael Robins knitted the actors together well, fluidly moving each character in and out of scenes and bringing tension to the dynamics among them. The workshop mounting was cast with four veterans of Twin Cities stages, and all brought their abundant skill to their roles: Bob Davis, arrogant and unscrupulous as the General; Patrick Coyle as the Writer, whose high literary standards are attacked by a growing sense of desperation; J.C. Cutler as the Colonel, keeping his hand close to his vest; and Bill Corbett as the Guard, who harbors secrets of his own.
The notion that a leader's blueprint for the consolidation and protection of power is akin to a novelist's outline for a story of passion, intrigue and redemption, is fascinating. In fiction, there can be a justification for abhorrent acts, and evil characters can be made sympathetic by creating an understanding of traumatic life events that led them to their current state. Can such narrative devices affect our response to abhorrent acts committed by evil leaders in the real world? Jeffrey Hatcher's Strongman's Ghost gives these ideas an entertaining playing field. I hope that it returns, text tightened, in a fully polished production, to invite a wider audience to consider whether the script or the raw acts determine the course of a strongman's reign.
Strongman's Ghost was presented July 20 22, 2017, as part of Illusion Theater's Fresh Ink Series to nurture new work. For more information on Fresh Ink or Illusion Theater go to illusiontheater.org.
Writer: Jeffrey Hatcher; Director: Michael Robins; Set Design: Dean Holzman; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: Rachel Rhoades; Production Manager: Sarah Salisbury.
Cast: Bill Corbett (The Guard), Patrick Coyle (The Writer), J.C. Cutler (The Colonel), Bob Davis (The General).