When the large, multi-racial cast assembles onstage at the start of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world-premiere adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here” and exhorts you to cheer, applaud and boo during the show in response to cue cards — and when you’re slyly warned, “Reserve judgment before making any hasty historical parallels” — you can’t help but be primed for a play that lampoons a certain orange-hued political figure that most Berkeley theater-goers love to hate.
The Rep’s artistic director, Tony Taccone, with cowriter Bennett S. Cohen and input from director Lisa Peterson, re-imagined for the stage Lewis’ grim satire about a world in which a newly elected, populist president leads the country into fascism.
Picking out material from the novel, they eschewed a 1936 Federal Theatre Project adaptation, and updated some of Lewis’ text without veering into anachronism or obvious present-day allusions.
The result is a play that is, despite its intriguingly nontraditional staging, is mainly a historical curiosity.
Our hero Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis) is a liberal small-town newspaper editor who’s shocked at the groundswell of enthusiasm for the hyper-patriotic candidate, Buzz Windrip (David Kelly), who’s quickly elected on a promise of giving everyone $5,000 and “winning the country back again.”
It’s all about money, Jessup and his adult son (Will Rogers) agree.
Once Windrip is in office, things go south in a scary way. Martial law is declared; all due process is suspended; concentration camps are established; “seditious activities” lead to death by firing squad. Minute Men wreak havoc nationwide.
By the second act, the outspoken Jessup has been sentenced to life imprisonment and is a fugitive working for the resistance, the “New Underground.”
The story is told by the fine cast partly through narration by various actors, partly through dialogue and partly by way of Peterson’s smartly choreographed stage movement.
But, especially in the overlong second act, it’s a story that, tonally uneven, is both sentimental and superficial: the characters lack complexity (family man Jessup is cheating on his wife, but somehow that’s OK), the political arguments are not fresh, and the transformation of the country into a fascist state is unconvincingly depicted at a time when what’s needed is an in-depth, or perhaps absurdist, treatment of the issues.
Soon enough, Lewis’ tale, no doubt just right for 1935 and theoretically apropos for today, nevertheless seems irrelevant.
It Can’t Happen Here
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre,2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, closes Nov. 6
Tickets: $45 to $97
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org