(Theater review) When candidates go into a theater, it’s fair to expect drama. And if the advertising for it also looked a bit like a playbill for a prize fight, well, intellectual fisticuffs must be coming our way.
Or at least some dialogue.
In the end, little of that was present at Long Wharf Theatre as mayoral candidates Toni Harp, Henry Fernandez, Justin Elicker, and Kermit Carolina filed in and took their places behind four music stands at a few minutes to 7 p.m.
There were bright lights, cameras galore on tripod and boom, a live audience of energetically applauding partisans, and an electronic audience perhaps the biggest of the race.
So why was there so little action in “The Main Event: New Haven’s Great Mayoral Debate,” as it was billed, the climactic mass-media debate of the New Haven mayoral race that unfolded at the Long Wharf Theater Wednesday night? (The Independent sponsored the debate along with NBC Connecticut, La Voz Hispana, the Democracy Fund, and the New Haven Register.)
Characters’ first entrances are important; think even of the intros preceding the presidential debates on TV. Our four hopefuls trickled into position, not like the stars they were but rather like extras in a crowd scene.
Most people watched the debate on TV. It was staged for TV. I watched it from the seats at Long Wharf along with hundreds of others. As a playwright and theater writer, I watched it through the lens not of a TV viewer home on the couch or a political campaign supporter rooting from the seats. I focused on the live in-person dramatic staging, on the theater of politics. From that perspective, the candidates didn’t come off as Equity veterans.
Setting up in the theater made some of us look forward to an evening of, if not the high drama of Lear or Willy Loman, then at least few homey revelations and a little Elm City dirt being spilled.
What followed was light years away from Macbeth or political theater of any kind.
The candidates stated their well-known positions without engaging with each other or even irritating each other except for one or two instances during the hour-long affair. It just goes to prove that putting politics in the theater doesn’t make what you’re viewing any more dramatic than if it were staged in a laundromat.
I think the problem was a kind of fractured focus.
As reporters from the Independent, La Voz, and the Register asked questions from a desk facing them, the candidates answered, but addressed their replies sometimes to the reporters. At times they also aimed their gazes over toward genial NBC moderator Gerry Brooks, often to the cameras, at other times to partisans who filled the seats of the darkened theater.
The set-up put the candidates/as actors in the unenviable position of violating a major rule of stage acting: namely, in order to see reporters, cameras, and so forth, candidates at all times had their backs to a third of the house. That’s a no-no.
As theater, which cannot exist, without conflict, the format was crippled in not letting the reporters follow up and drill down.
However it did allow for the characters, er, the candidates to interact. That is, with 60-second answers and 30 seconds allowed for instant rebuttal for personal attack, they could have engaged each other.
Yet there was precious little.
It was monologue, not dialogue.
About 20 minutes in we experienced the hope of some rising action. In response to a question on taxes offered via video by an ordinary citizen, Henry Fernandez said in reference to his wife, “Kica and I own our own home . . . we know what the gentleman [on the video] is talking about.”
Then he went on to say that unfortunately one of his opponents, Justin Elicker, “has voted repeatedly for higher taxes” and another opponent, Toni Harp has said she’s never read the budget.”
The action such as it was intensified when Elicker responded to Fernandez’s charge with a touch of, well, sarcasm: “We need to have a budget lesson,” he declared, concluding that he’s been a leader in cutting taxes.
Harp, who was flanking Fernandez on the other side, in effect continued the lesson. She reminded Fernandez that half the budget for the city derives form the state Capitol, where she serves a leading role as co-chair of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee: “I’m really irritated that someone who has never come to the state has the nerve to say that to me.”
Fernandez did not claim his 30 seconds to counter-punch, and the candidates resumed staking out their well-known positions, many of which they all share: They all support the chief and community policing, the new schools superintendent, the importance of early childhood education, and more vo-tech opportunites and jobs for city kids.
So who was the leading actor, who were in supporting roles, who the love interest, and who the complex, undermining character?
Hard to say, since we didn’t have much of a play here. You might be forgiven as a theater-goer in Long Wharf’s fine new space for feeling there were three one-man shows and one one-woman show being staged simultaneously. They just happened to be on the same stage.
However, his central position on stage, his height, and the fact that he of the three men in grey suits was alone wearing a yellowish, non-grey tie, put Elicker at the center of attention, or non-attention, as the case may be.
I’d also give Elicker’s voice, which has a musical timbre, with a touch of rising and falling, an advantage. For that reason, in my highly informal tallying of which candidate the others’ heads turned to most as he or she spoke, Elicker gets the prize, I believe.
The award for physical acting, such as it was, goes to Kermit Carolina. Alone of the candidates, he used his hands effectively, his right hand, with thumb upraised striking the air several times to underline his pugnacious role as the impassioned outsider who takes no money from influence pedlars and is beholden to only the people of our fair city.
Even in one-man shows, no, especially in a one-hander, the actor who has no one to be in conflict with on the stage, has to reveal conflict within himself. Or herself. Otherwise, why keep watching?
It’s purely a feeling, but I think Toni Harp deserves this particular award. Her calm demeanor, augmented by the calmer blue of her dress, seemed to me to belie great discomfort in having to be on the stage at all. “We are not Detroit. Together we can move the city ahead,” she said in her closing remarks. I felt she wanted to step off that stage as fast as possible and get to work. Well, she certainly didn’t want to head to Detroit.
Finally, about whom did we learn the most? Not their positions, but their humanity, the stuff we go to the theater for?
Mmmm, that’s a tough one. We, or I, learned that Carolina has two kids age 13 and 16. I’ve got two kids too. I like that. We have that in common. I learned Justin’s phone number, but I knew it already because, as he always does, he broadcast it, and I believe he was checking out some calls that had already come in as he made his way out the lobby at the end of Wednesday’s proceedings..
But I believe Henry Fernandez revealed most about his life. In answer to a question about English language learners, he revealed that he and his wife Kica Matos believe so much in bilingual education, Matos speaks to young Henry in Spanish and older Henry to his son in English. That’s a nice window on a candidate’s life.
Will it translate into votes? That remains to be seen.
But tense as the race really is, if you want political drama, where a character (Brutus) struggles to reconcile friendship with duty, go across town where The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by Elm Shakespeare Company is completing its run at Edgerton Park.