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From the Mirvish production of Stuff Happens: Nigel Shawn Williams, Sarah Orenstein, Hardee Lineham and David Fox.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Stuff Happens

  • Written by David Hare
  • Directed by Joel Greenberg
  • Starring Nigel Shawn Williams, Karen Robinson, Michael Healey and Andrew Gillies
  • At The Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto

A year and a half after its acclaimed, sell-out run in March, 2008, Studio 180's production of David Hare's Stuff Happens is finally back on stage in Toronto. In the interim, however, so much more "stuff" happened.

The United States of America elected Barack Obama as its President, the world plunged into financial crisis and the American left and right now wage their belligerent battles over Afghanistan and health care.

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Does Hare's play - about the still contested, still murky build-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq of 2003 - still resonate and rivet now that every single one of its colourful characters is out of public office?

With the U.S.'s democratic regime change, the play certainly can't ride on the same wave of audience anger with the powers-that-be. When Secretary of State Colin Powell furiously lets loose about "armchair generals" in front of George W. Bush at the end of the first act, the scene is less cathartic now that we've seen an even more beloved black politician actually bounce Bush and his buddies out of the White House.

But while Stuff Happens has undeniably lost a certain immediacy, the deeper themes about power and politics have bubbled up to the surface. As memories of heated debates over humanitarian intervention and pre-emptive war fade and the decade rolls over, it is arguably now more important to remember and reflect upon the lessons learned. Hare has called his semi-speculative account of the lead-up to the invasion a "history play," but only now does the description actually ring true.

As for Joel Greenberg's fast-paced production, it doesn't hurt that it is even tighter this time around and its 15-person ensemble even more impressive.

Two of the major roles have been recast to positive effect. While Yanna McIntosh perfectly personified the bloodless enigmatic that is Condoleeza Rice last year, Karen Robinson's warmer, archer portrait of the National Security Adviser makes her seem more human and therefore even more beguiling.

Similarly, though Michael Healey doesn't capture George W. Bush's speech patterns or physicality as well as his predecessor Barry Flatman, the role benefits from this distance from the former Commander in Chief's much-mocked public persona. By getting away from impersonation, Healey's portrayal lets us look past Bush as comic relief and examine the shrewd populist that lay beneath the buffoonish exterior.

It's hard to tell if David Fox's Donald Rumsfeld and Hardee T. Lineham's Dick Cheney have become less cartoonish, or if their big acting just plays better in a larger theatre. Regardless, they both knock their roles out of the park. Andrew Gillies remains spot-on as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, an idealist who sees the invasion of Iraq as a humane intervention to save an oppressed people.

Some of the best performances come in the smaller roles: Guy Bannerman and Paul Essiembre both exude European charm as UN weapons inspector Hans Blix and Dominique de Villepin, who was then French foreign minister, while Richard Binsley is compellingly creepy as the socially awkward evil genius, and Bush's Deputy Secretary of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz.

Nigel Shawn Williams's Colin Powell, the play's tragic hero in Hare's account, remains problematic. He still seems too angry and outspoken - a man so unable to keep his composure simply could not have survived in his position. While this Powell does work dramatically, he is the only part of the play that rings resoundingly false - a bit of wish fulfilment where the playwright's own positions and voice bleed through.

Hare hasn't quite nailed down Bush, either, but then again who has? At times, Bush seems to be on a mission sent from God; at others, he seems engaged in cynical realpolitik .

Hare has described Stuff Happens as being about supposedly stupid men triumphing over supposedly smart men, as both Powell and Blair, who are painted somewhat sympathetically, are bulldozed by the unpolished, unabashed populist that is Bush.

And that seems to me the most important unlearned lesson of the play. South of the border, liberal smartypantses continue to laugh at the Sarah Palin branch of the Republican Party, "misunderestimating" their power and influence once again.

Meanwhile, up in Canada, one of the most prominent humanitarian interventionists has been elevated to the head of the Liberal Party. We could very well see a replay of the Bush-Blair saga in a few years - this story definitely isn't over yet.

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Stuff Happens runs until Dec. 23 at the Royal Alex in Toronto.

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