Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall, a speculative look at the near future of America under the Trump presidency, is a timely yet oddly underwhelming examination of the political situation our southern neighbours have regrettably brought upon themselves. Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Theatre present the Canadian premiere (playing at the Gladstone until December 3rd) of this new play, which is exciting news for Ottawa theatre although I do wish that the company and director Sean Devine made more of an attempt at showing a balance between the admittedly disparate points of view in the current American political spectacle, and the limited applicability of American political drama to Canadian audiences is also something of a concern.
In a prison in El Paso in 2019, potential death row inmate Rick meets with university professor Gloria, who wants to interview him in an attempt to understand why he did what he did. Rick is suspicious of her motivations, having been the subject of the public spotlight for his crimes, but eventually opens up to her. Frustratingly, however, we as the audience don’t learn anything about Rick’s criminal record until well over halfway through the play’s 70 minute running time, with only vague references to his actions being pretty horrifying. As it turns out it is pretty horrifying, but the lack of suspense means that there’s not much build up to the reveal.
Building the Wall seems to be more of a character study rather than a story proper. The plotline is rather simple, with Gloria and Rick moving through Rick’s life story from his childhood up to the aforementioned heinous acts, with Gloria occasionally pointing out the flaws in Rick’s logic and asking questions about his motivations for such life decisions as joining the military (it’s a slow burn, this play). As a character study, however, it works pretty well: starting from Rick’s childhood helps us to understand why he is the way he is, and it all starts off very plausibly: an abusive deadbeat dad and a religious mother, lack of motivation in school, joining the military because there was nothing else… it all logically flows, Rick’s life and decisions, even though it offers a view of the stereotypical Trump supporter rather than the more difficult-to-understand voter demographics such as white women, who also mostly voted for Trump.
Still, the character study comes at the expense of the storytelling experience: Gloria seems to mostly be there as an impetus for Rick to start talking rather than being a fully fleshed-out character in her own right. She has characteristics to be sure, but none of them seem especially defining: she is a pregnant, educated black woman whose brother died in Iraq and once had a drinking problem because of it, but all of these qualities are mentioned once and then largely ignored for the remainder of the play. Does Rick open up to her because he had a drinking problem too, or because he has a soft spot for children and her baby bump subconsciously inclines him to trust her? There are opportunities for a more dynamic relationship between these two characters beyond interviewer and interviewee, but those avenues aren’t really explored.
There are really two storylines at play here: the story of Rick becoming the director of a privately-run prison for illegal immigrants (that’s as much of a hint as I’ll give you), as well as the story of Gloria trying to get Rick to admit what he did, as he refused to testify at his trial. Playwright Schenkkan focuses so much on the first of these stories that the second, the one the audience is actually watching, is more of an afterthought. A psychological game of cat-and-mouse would work beautifully here (think Silence of the Lambs or even Netflix’s Mindhunter) as well as add suspense to both storylines.
As it is, Gloria’s true colours show when the full reveal is done and her contempt for Rick is pretty obvious. Given that the character study of Rick (with its logical throughline) seems to highlight the theme of “anybody can become a monster in the right situation”, an emotional connection between the two, with Gloria struggling to reconcile the man she’s bonded with as the perpetrator of crimes against humanity (what not-so-subtle historical parallels might this play be making?), would make a bit more sense as opposed to the judgemental tone of the play’s final moments.
The lack of connection between the two characters makes a lot more sense considering what Schenkkan himself states in his Playwright’s Note in the programme: “Then, in October of last year, as the most expensive and dispiriting Presidential campaign in recent memory came to a close, I sat down and and in a white-hot fury, wrote this play”. The fact that this play was written at a time of extremely heightened partisan tensions when it seemed anything could happen (and not in a good way) is reflected in Schenkkan’s choice to have Rick’s crimes be as horrifying as possible. Additionally, the understanding that this play comes from a place of anger makes the lack of development on Gloria’s part so much more understandable. From this perspective, she’s more or less a stand-in for the presumably liberal audiences who will go to see this play and subscribe to its speculation that, despite its logical build-up, is still just speculation. Now that we’re 10 months into the Trump presidency and his ineffectiveness seems to be his saving grace, the extremes that this play indirectly portrays seem less credible – fortunate for us, but not for this play.
The simplistic nature of the onstage storyline- that of Gloria interviewing Rick – makes for an uncomplicated staging given that neither character leaves the stage for the entirety of the play. As Rick, Brad Long dives headfirst into the cognitive dissonance that has become a defining feature of the Trump voting bloc, perhaps best illustrated when Gloria corrects Rick’s assertion that the invasion of Iraq was payback for 9/11 as the hijackers were mostly Saudi Arabian, followed by Rick’s quick reply “Well we weren’t going to attack Saudi Arabia.” The arc that Rick experiences throughout the storyline is wonderfully represented through Long’s emotionally-driven reactions: initial anger and flippancy, argumentative defensiveness, followed by a reticence to talk in which Rick’s guilt is almost physically palpable.
As Gloria, Cassandre Mentor is admittedly not given much to work with, but her coolness during the sections where she (briefly) discusses Gloria’s experiences with racism and her brother’s death speaks to a subtle drive to get Rick to admit what she knows he did. The intensity of the last 10-15 minutes where Rick’s guilt is evident and Gloria attempts to stifle her disgust is wonderful but slightly marred by the lighting decision to lower the lights around them to create a spotlight effect. Besides there being no mood lighting in prisons (the set is minimal but otherwise realistic in design), this choice seemed like an underestimation of the audience’s ability to detect dramatic tension, with the spotlight effect being a kind of signpost for the tension of the moment.
Building the Wall is a topical exploration of the American political landscape, though the changeability of that landscape in real life works to the play’s disadvantage. It’s an undeniably entertaining (and terrifying) spectacle, though the comparative lack of Canadian plays similarly presenting perspectives on recent upheavals in our own country (what with Truth and Reconciliation, the Jian Ghomeshi trial and that judge in Nova Scotia deciding that “a drunk can clearly consent”, the likely legalization of marijuana, the recasting of the federal leaders of 2 of the 3 major political parties, and so on, we certainly have enough to talk about) is somewhat disheartening.
This production is obviously not single-handedly responsible for this, but given that this is the second of Horseshoes and Hand Grenades’ recent productions to focus on American political upheaval (Re:Union at the 2015 Magnetic North festival dealt with the parallels between the Vietnam and Iraq wars), I do look forward to seeing topical Canadian issues being engaged with on stage. These homegrown topics certainly have their own fair share of disparate points of view (we have our own issues with social conservatism) but to put it onstage as Horseshoes and Hand Grenades have done with Building the Wall is to at least begin the conversation about artistically documenting the issues that affect us even more directly than whoever is President of the United States. Topical political drama is something that Ottawa theatre could certainly use, but the distance between us and this production, both in real life and in the potential 2019 the play presents, prevents Building the Wall from being the show that Ottawa really needs.
Building the Wall
A Horseshoes and Hand Grenades production
Written by Robert Schenkkan
Directed by Sean Devine
Stage Management by Chantal Hayman
Set and Lighting Design by David Magladry
Sound Design by Kyle Ahluwalia
Starring Brad Long and Cassandre Mentor
At The Gladstone
28 November – 3 December, 7:30pm (and one Saturday matinee at 2:30pm)
Running Time: approximately 70 minutes with no intermission