The Trump Card – Theatre Review: Stray Cat Theatre, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

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In 2007, Irish television designed a new TV game show as a replacement for another. Despite the title of the new show, it was the one thing with the name Trump stamped on it that had nothing to do with The Donald. The new show was called The Trump Card, and it arrived on Irish TV screens with much fanfare and trail-blazing hype, much like the beginning of Trump’s political career two thousand miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. While this may have nothing to do with monologist Mike Daisy’s new and couldn’t-be-more-timely play of the same name, in a way, it does. We’ll circle back to it at the end.

At the beginning of Stray Cat Theatre’s presentation of The Trump Card, now performing for a limited two week run at Tempe Center for the Arts, Ron May as Mike Daisey immediately points out in no uncertain terms who’s to blame for the unbelievable political rise of a man like Donald Trump. We all are. When entertainment, reality TV, and the American political landscape are allowed to merge into one, we shouldn’t be surprised; we get what we deserve. We get a real estate magnate and reality TV personality who fired people every Sunday evening for our amusement and for studio ratings. We get Donald Trump, and as difficult as it is for some to have to admit, he’s running a successful though unique campaign to be the next President of the United States. “I may despise him,” Daisey tell us, “But he’s very good at his job.” For the following ninety minutes or so, Daisey explains why.

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The author and actor appears to have done his homework as he convincingly delivers a cause and effect method explaining the hows and whys of Trump’s popularity. Daisey, whose personal truths came under scrutiny for discovered fabrication and embellishments within his previous monolog, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and no doubt aware that his audience for The Trump Card is also aware, introduces himself as “an artist.” He means he’s a professional liar, a qualification that might actually help when discussing another professional liar – make that, an alleged professional liar, though the fact that Trump continually contradicts himself, often within the same paragraph, is daily proof positive, making alleged seem laughingly absurd.

The play illustrates how, once you’ve switched off that part of your brain concerned with morals and ethics, it’s not altogether difficult to understand the allure of such a person as Trump. Framed by the playing of ‘Trump: The Board Game,’ where the number 6 on the single die is replaced by the letter T, Daisey explores those areas and circumstances in Trump’s background that shaped the man he’s become and how it would be almost impossible to be anything other than what he is.

Daisey talks of Trump’s father, slumlord king Fred Trump who maximized his profits by his non-payment practices to those who worked for him, plus his alleged racism, something Daisey parallels with his own family, his grandfather whom he describes as “spectacularly racist.” But, as the monologist states, this is family and you work with what you’re given. And so it was with Trump who learned much from his father, but perhaps more insidiously, learned further during the seventies from construction project partner, attorney Roy Cohn, the anti-Jewish Jew and homosexual hating homosexual who gained prominence from scare tactics during the McCarthy period when he was a senator, and who died from AIDS in 1986.

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References from Sarah Palin, the bizarre claims of Dr. Ben Carson who had his hands in other people’s brains while his own might be in need of some close attention, to the one sentence from Trump that destroyed Jeb Bush all paint a picture of how decency in politics has unraveled before us while we’ve sat back and amused ourselves to death while watching it unfold on the news. Much is laugh-out-loud funny – to quote many of the lines in a review of a play that is really a monolog is the equivalent of revealing plot-spoilers; you have to hear them for yourself – but the show’s most effective moments come when you suddenly realize it’s not funny. That’s the moment when the audience is stunned into silence, and it happens several times.

Director Katie McFadzen, who as an actor did so well in her recent one-woman show as narrator in A Christmas Carol at Herberger Center, draws on that same single-performance energy and absorbs a surprising and unexpected liveliness out of May; he’s considerably more animated when playing Daisy than he was seated behind his table in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and the show is all the better for it.

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Unlike the real Mike Daisy, May appears far more expressive as he waves his arms, finger points, emphasizes words, and occasionally struts the stage. When he talks of how he feels in the morning, wondering if he ate bad curry or drunk too much the night before, only to realize that his unsettled stomach is the result of remembering that Donald Trump is still running for President, it’s like watching a stand-up routine, and the audience responds accordingly. But it’s when he returns back to the table that substance arises, and that’s when you lean forward in your seat, glued to his every, persuasively presented word. You won’t always like what you hear. Depending on your own chosen political viewpoint, whether it’s based on fact or wishful thinking, you may even question Daisey’s reasoning.

The writer’s theorizing on what makes Trump the man we see and hear on the nightly news alters perspective. Going forward, you better understand the style, the absurd claims, the non-admittance of guilt, the denial of charges and how it came to be that unlike other politicians – those whose words are so carefully chosen they sound like automatons in need of extra oil – Trump just says what he wants. He blurts it out. And even though it doesn’t always makes sense, it makes perfect sense that he says them. And in case you’re wondering whether liberals are left untouched, hold that thought. Trump is everyone’s fault, the writer is saying, and Daisey doesn’t hold back when pointing that accusatory finger at everyone in the theatre.

The Trump Card as presented at Tempe Center of the Arts is considerably shorter than Mike Daisey’s rambling 150 minute epic. The script is edited to approximately ninety minutes by May, McFadzen and Mychal Anaya, and by doing this, the whole production feels considerably tighter, more contained and better structured. Circling back to the board game rounds the proceedings off, culminating with an imagined conversation with the late Roy Cohn who declares why it matters little whether Trump becomes President on November 8th; he’s already won. The reasoning is chilling but it makes perfect sense.

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Now back to that Irish TV game show of the same name. As already stated, the hype and promotion before its premiere was all engulfing. Naturally, the hope was for good ratings, which The Trump Card (the game show) achieved when it first ran. With so much publicity, Irish TV audiences could hardly look away. But almost immediately, its popularity dropped. Audiences found it both repetitive and complicated with advertised promises never achieved. They wanted it off their screens, admitting that what they had before was better than what was now on offer. And so it was removed, replaced by something else.

With Mike Daisey’s examples of a world where the merging of entertainment, reality TV, and the American political landscape really has become one, you can’t help but draw your own parallel with the above-mentioned failed television game show and Donald Trump’s real-life campaign and potential presidency. Whether it’s the projected ground work for events that might actually follow is difficult to say, but it certainly gives pause for thought. Only the results of November 8 and the events of the following weeks will tell, but if it really does develop that way, oh Lord, heaven help us all.

Pictures courtesy of John Groseclose

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