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Buffalo becomes ground zero for political theater

It’s been an unexpectedly busy month on Buffalo’s theater scene.

I’m not talking about MusicalFare’s simultaneous productions of “Avenue Q” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” I’m not talking about “The Wizard of Oz” dropping into Shea’s Performing Arts Center or the innovative “Yeats Project” set to open across the street at the Irish Classical Theatre Company’s Andrews Theatre.

I’m talking about a dizzying string of spontaneous one-person shows, ad hoc environmental theater pieces and meticulously directed two-handers starring some of the nation’s leading practitioners of the theatrical form: Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Each of the recent local appearances from four candidates vying for the presidency has drawn heavily on the language and history of the theatrical art form. After all, what is theater at its most elemental if not a performer stepping out onto a stage under blinding lights and before an eager crowd, following a script and adapting the rhythm, cadence and content of their performance to the energy of the audience?

And, like any local production, some of the political theatrics we’ve seen in the past two weeks have been more successful than others judging by the standards of the form. What follows is a ranked look at how well each candidate succeeded – without any regard to their ideological positions – in employing the language of theater to communicate their messages.

Ted Cruz

Local theater closest in approach: Irish Classical Theatre Company

Stylistic inspiration: Matthew Harrison Brady in “Inherit the Wind”

Of all the candidates, Cruz’s visit to Buffalo was the most meticulously directed and tailored to his specific strengths as a performer. Owing to his low popularity in New York as much as his facility with small-crowd interactions and guided conversations, Cruz and his handlers opted for a town hall meeting rather than a more traditional rally. And this approach, which played out on MSNBC in a guided discussion with “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd on April 14, helped the candidate maintain laser-like control over his message.

The setup of the event as a theater-in-the-round affair, arranged with Cruz and Todd on a stage and surrounded on all sides by audience members on risers, was a smart symbolic stroke. It put the candidate below the audience, which gave a sense that he was there to listen rather than to talk down to his audience. It’s hard to come off as condescending when your audience is above you. And it doesn’t hurt that the event was set in a live theater venue named for the great Buffalo-born actress Katharine Cornell.

What’s more, Cruz’s humor – his jokes about Republicans’ scrambling to declare themselves Ronald Reagan loyalists, in particular – worked much better than they would have in a one-man show because Todd set them up so well and laughed so affably when they landed.

Cruz’s scripted side-trip to visit Charlie the Butcher was less successful and by comparison uninspired, especially given the well-worn nature of that particular theatrical convention in Western New York political history. Even so, Cruz’s visit was by far the most polished and theatrically controlled of the group.

Donald Trump

Local theater closest in approach: Torn Space Theater

Stylistic inspiration: Donald Trump

Where Cruz and his staff calculated every last detail of his visit, Trump’s campaign allowed the energy of its large fan base and the curiosity of the general population to dictate the style and delivery of the event. This approach necessarily comes with a lack of predictability, but can deliver an engagement factor many orders of magnitude greater than a more traditional and straightforward approach.

The popularity of Trump’s events seems to be driven less by the content of his speeches, which like most stump speeches are repetitive not only from venue to venue within themselves, and more by the potential for audience participation. This certainly turned out to be true during Trump’s visit to First Niagara Center on April 18, when protesters were escorted out within the first few minutes of his speech and the streets around the venue were filled with often tense displays of pro- and anti-Trump rhetoric.

In this way, whether intentionally or not, the Trump campaign borrows heavily from the potential of site-specific environmental theater. With such theater, now growing in popularity locally largely due to the work of Torn Space Theater, the emotional power of an event comes less from the predictable narrative elements of traditional theater than from intangible forces such as mood and an infectious, nervous anticipation of the unexpected. In Trump’s case, the specter of violence is always floating around somewhere. Whether they admit it or not, that’s something audiences across the political spectrum are likely to pay attention to, even if all that extra attention may not directly translate into support for the candidate’s message.

In this way, Trump’s approach is perhaps the edgiest and most avant garde of the four, in that it allows its audience to become a crucial part of the show.

Bernie Sanders

Local theater closest in approach: Subversive Theatre Collective

Stylistic inspiration: Danny Newman, a lightly fictionalized version of Manny Fried, in “The Un-American”

What Bernie Sanders’ appearance in the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena on April 11 lacked in sophistication, it partially made up for in old-school bluster and smart improvisation.

Sanders’ stump speech was more coherent, if just as road-worn, as Trump’s, and it is clear his time on the campaign trail has taught him about the need to spice up his delivery and break out of the one-dimensionally stentorian manner of speaking that has long been his trademark. Sanders’ attempts to do so by adding flickers of humor and tamping down on the volume remain uncomfortable, but he is making progress. Even so, as orators go, it’s a low bar this year: None of the candidates shines particularly bright in the shadow of more rhetorically gifted politicians or pundits such as William F. Buckley Jr., Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.

What made Sanders’ appearance more successful than a straight-ahead rally was his insistence on appearing outside the venue, in what News Washington Bureau Chief Jerry Zremski accurately described as a “clunky” black coat, to address thousands of supporters who were unable to get inside the venue. Regardless of whether it was calculated or genuine, this move – like Sanders’ visit to a local Communication Workers of America union hall as Verizon workers prepared to strike – played into the candidate’s curated image as a no-frills man of the people more concerned about the lives of the working class than standing in the wind and rain.

Hillary Clinton

Local theater closest in approach: Kavinoky Theatre

Stylistic inspiration: Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton on “Saturday Night Live”

When the wires show in a play, which is to say when the specific desires of the playwright and director make themselves too overt through the efforts of the cast and crew, the emotional impact of the production suffers. So it was for Hillary Clinton’s scripted-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life appearance April 8 in the Pierce-Arrow Museum before a crowd of 2,000.

From the moment Clinton stepped onto the stage to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” – a borderline cloying attempt to appear both dismissive of criticism from Sanders’ campaign and to appeal to younger voters – the atmosphere was somewhat strained. Clinton’s comfort in public speaking is evident, but it sometimes slipped into a certain automatic cadence that she shook off upon returning to Buffalo-specific themes.

But she also dusted off a Dickensian anecdote about a hotel maid who gave her a Buffalo snow globe and implored her not to forget about the city when she was visiting for long stretches in the early 2000s, a story even the most maudlin of playwrights probably would have cut during previews.

Even so, judging only by the standards of straight-ahead campaign rallies perfected by her predecessors Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Clinton’s Pierce-Arrow appearance was directly in line with tradition.

But this year, as we’ve seen in campaign stops from Pittsburgh to Peoria, the grand traditions are breaking down.