Camus filters

Chicago exports a new, existential brand of political satire: The Strangerer.

OFF MESSAGE Guy Massey loses his way in a presidential debate.

OFF MESSAGE Guy Massey loses his way in a presidential debate. Photograph: Kristin Basta

In the future, President Bush may be remembered as “the torture president,” and not just in relation to detainees at Guantánamo. The commander in chief’s mangling of English—although infinitely less horrifying—is also a national shame. To Chicago playwright Mickle Maher, whose mash-up of Bush, Camus and Albee, The Strangerer, comes to the Barrow Street Theatre this week, the mind that can produces such sentences as “Is our children learning?” is not just simple—it’s in turmoil. “The way Bush thinks inside is the same way he talks on the outside—it’s just as jangled and jumbled up inside his brain,” Maher posits.

In critiquing the President’s use of language, Maher isn’t just making a satirical observation but giving a character précis: The Strangerer recasts a 2004 campaign debate between Bush and John Kerry as an existential fantasia, with an increasingly manic Prez trying repeatedly to murder the debate’s moderator, Jim Lehrer. Mingled throughout are references to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and some works of Camus, including, yes, The Stranger—bizarrely but truly one of Bush’s own summer reading choices a few years ago.

Maher’s Bush is “trying to be a theater artist, in a sense; he’s trying to make a moment of theater for the audience, and he needs to make language work for him, but he’s up against an impossible task.” This challenge almost inevitably humanizes the POTUS, at least in the context of the play: “His language is like Richard III’s hunchback—an obstacle to what he’s trying to achieve, which he then uses to try to get the audience on his side.”

The Strangerer is only the latest off-kilter hit to wend its way from Chicago’s edgy Off Loop to Off Broadway courtesy of independent producer Scott Morfee. He’s the guy we can thank for introducing Tracy Letts to New York with Killer Joe and Bug, and for trucking in the dissonant Windy City musical Adding Machine to the Minetta Lane Theatre. With Theatre Oobleck’s Strangerer alongside a pair of improv offerings, Baby Wants Candy and TJ & Dave, Morfee’s Barrow Street Theatre is having a very Chi-Town July.

“It’s not my fault there’s so much talent in Chicago,” jokes the producer, who says he shops for projects in New York and London but goes to the Windy City mainly “for fun” and just happens to find great work. “A lot of the actors there have day jobs, so theater is not as much a day-to-day business,” he theorizes. “That translates into people doing shows they really care about.” Maher, who cofounded Theatre Oobleck 20 years ago, agrees. “How can I say this without making it sound holier-than-thou?” he muses. “If you’re sticking it out in Chicago, there’s more of a chance that you’re doing it just for the love of it.”

The Strangerer is at Barrow Street Theatre.