Sometimes, a company and a writer just click. Hyde Park has done wonders with the work of Conor McPherson and Annie Baker, Maksym Kurochkin and Breaking String are a marriage made in heaven, and Capital T makes Mickle Maher’s work sing like no other, creating glittering wonders from the writer’s unique gems, including award-winning productions of “Spirits to Enforce” and “There is a Happiness That Morning Is”. With “The Strangerer”, the latest marriage of Maher and Capital T, we find a stripped down, more focused story at the heart of the play, following what happens when the philosophies of Albert Camus and the turbulent days of 2004 politics are thrown into an aging blender. It’s a lumpy, bizarre mash, but always a compelling watch.
To truly appreciate Mickle Maher’s “The Strangerer”, it’s important that one first has a basic understanding of the work of Albert Camus. Themes, ideas, and even plot lines from Camus’ books bob and weave through Maher’s piece, and though there is some information is the playbill’s foreword, it would be greatly beneficial for an audience member to at least familiarize themselves with The Stranger, the Plague, and the Fall. Even the most ardent fan of Camus may find themselves at a loss, however, if they don’t remember the political climate of 2004. It was a time of heavy doubt and fear, making it oddly fertile soil for Camus’ ideas to germinate in.
Though he shares the stage with some fine actors, “The Strangerer” is truly a testament to the talent of Robert Pierson. The role demands that the actor walk a fine line, bringing out the humorous personality and foibles of our 43rd president, while never playing him off as simply a joke. After all, there is some very cerebral material coming out of the mouth of Bush here, and it has to be believable, despite the constant spoonerisms, pauses, and vocal stumbles. Pierson is able to play up the buffoonery and bring the laughs in droves, while also selling the more potent passages, creating something textured and prismatic, and riveting to watch.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ken Webster utilizes his ability to portray subtle emotion with skillful nuance in his taciturn performance as John Kerry, who is not prone to the wild fits of fancy of his opponent, keeping his emotions more locked in. Throughout the play, Webster barely moves a muscle, but there is often a tumult behind his eyes, a cadence of speech belies a multitude of emotions. Through it all, there’s an icy coldness to the performance, a creeping dread that we just can’t shake as his sad, motionless eyes stare out at something on the horizon.
“The Strangerer” is a bizarre piece, and could at times even be considered difficult, but it never strays too far into intellectualism that it forgets it’s a comedy. It tempers its ideas with real laughs, and the setting makes that perfect, whether it be Bush’s constant stumbles or Kerry’s tendency to fall asleep standing up. Indeed, under the firm, intelligent hand of director Mark Pickell, “The Strangerer” hits a nice balance of intelligence and wit, leaving you with a few belly laughs, a lot to think about, and plenty to talk about over the days that follow. It may take a little research to truly appreciate, and it may help to bring your thinking cap, but for those coming into this production with open minds, they’ll find a wildly original piece performed with polished precision by a trio of Austin’s best.
Photo Courtesy of Capital T Theatre