"Condoleezza: The Musical."
"Enron on Ice."
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s "Flu!"
When a craving for topical entertainment hits, one doesn’t normally think of going to the theater. Transforming headlines into stage art is what "Saturday Night Live" is for.
Playwrights benefit from historical distance. Keith Reddin’s "Frame 312," based on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, needed decades to brew.
Even "Angels in America," Tony Kushner’s 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic about life in the time of AIDS, is set in the 1980s, giving a more thoughtful perspective on an issue that’s still resonant today.
"I like the historical filter," says Valley-based playwright Terry Earp. "When things first come out, you don’t know what the truth is anyway, and you probably won’t know for years."
But that didn’t stop the Tribune from asking local playwrights to brainstorm new plays based on top news stories, from the capture of Saddam Hussein to Michael Jackson’s current criminal fracas.
Because, as Tempe playwright Ben Tyler said, "I’ve found that old axiom is right: Truth is stranger than fiction."
SADDAM HUSSEIN’S CAPTURE
Q: Ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s capture by U.S. troops on Dec. 14 gave the world a new phrase: "Spider hole." Could Valley playwrights envision a sort of "Diary of Anne Frank" for the former despot?
Ben Tyler: You’ve got conflict and interaction between really colorful characters. . . . What was it like for him when Baghdad fell? The whole period of being on the lam, in and out of taxis, in and out of spider holes. What you can do in a play that doesn’t come across so well in a film is, you can tell a lot of what made him tick, what kind of guy he was. Bad guys are always more interesting than good guys.
Terry Earp: I would probably do it from his point of view. Because even Hitler didn’t think he was a horrible, terrible person. He thought he was doing the right thing. It would be a difficult play, but in their minds, that’s how they see themselves. I would do it from inside his hole, a few hours before his capture. It wouldn’t be a comedy.
Chris Danowski: "Hussein!" with an exclamation point. (Laughs.) I would play up his last moments and make it absurd. Like, he’d be writing a play about himself — creating this musical about his glorious, "Evita"-like story, with Antonio Banderas playing him. And we would watch that version playing out through his eyes. Yeah, "Hussein!" But I don’t know who would see it. I don’t think anyone would pay to see it.
Mark Turvin: With Kofi Annan doing a big musical number at the end. (Laughs.) . . . I heard about a musical in Britain where (President) Bush is being portrayed as Scrooge (from "A Christmas Carol") and he’s being haunted by the ghosts of weapons inspectors.
James Garcia: You already have a standard villain, and people would eat that up.
THE D.C.-AREA SNIPERS
Q: Convicted snipers John Allen Muhammad and 18-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo sparked the most interest as a potential play by our local playwrights. A disturbing but touching story of a boy influenced by his father figure? A moody, ironic Stephen Sondheim spectacular? The options were limitless.
Earp: I’m thinking about the first (shooting), that was a dare kind of thing, and then it happened and there was a rush there. And then they find out they really, really like doing this. It gives them something they can’t get from any other activity. It becomes a need, almost an addiction. . . . I would have them sitting up on stage, on chairs, with guns, periodically shooting into the audience.
Garcia: (A play about) gun control issues. Just the presence of so much weaponry in this country and what that has to do with our culture, and why it was so easy for them to do what they did.
Tyler: That’s a story about a relationship. An older man, a younger boy.
Q: Michael Jackson’s arrest on suspicion of child molestation afforded our playwrights to take another swing at the King of Pop. How would his story make it to the stage?
Tyler: There’s the story of the mighty falling. People love to see people falling from high places. But you’d have to be careful. Pedophilia, that’s a very racy topic. . . . You also don’t want someone who is a bad Michael Jackson impersonator from a casino.
Earp: I’d have him dressed up as Peter Pan.
Turvin: I’d love to see Childsplay put on something about him. (Laughs.) . . . It has a good moral. Of course, nobody would want to see it. They’d be afraid they would hear his music.
Garcia: It would be so easy to go for the sensational that it would come off as cartoonish. If I were to deal at all with that issue, it would be through the eyes of multiple mega- celebrities and the kind of distorted world they live in. We’re talking about Elvis and Madonna. They live in a strange, two-dimensional world, and when we see that third dimension, that’s when we go, "Oooh, we got ’em."
Danowski: I would do a dinner party with him and all the stuff he bought, the Elephant Man’s bones. There would be no music in it. I like to write against the grain.
ARIZONA GAS SHORTAGE
Q: When a gas pipeline supplying fuel to the Valley ruptured this summer, it caused a local gas crisis with customers waiting sometimes for hours at gas stations while other stations had run dry.
Amy Dominy: I found it interesting, the connections people were making, complete strangers, at the gas pumps. The story is of how it changed the way we connected with each other. For some of us, the best came out, and for others the worst came out. I had my husband go get me gas . . . and we had to funnel it into the gas can from my car. He had to suck it out of the can. The whole episode of him trying to get the gas out of the can and into my car, it would have made a really hysterical 10-minute play. It might be a sad commentary on how desperate we are for gas.
Matthew Wiener: Two people waiting in line to get gas and falling in love.
Earp: I would probably find some incident where people get into fistfights.
AH-NOLD FOR GOVERNOR
Q: Perhaps it’s a better madefor-TV movie, but actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ascent to the governorship of California after the recall of Gray Davis might make for a curious theatrical production.
Wiener: That would be a comedy. The best thing about that election is that now California has a goofier gubernatorial image than Arizona has. I guess that (play) would be about the cult of celebrity. Lord knows he doesn’t have any policy background. Maybe it’s about the value of charisma.
Danowski: He’d be a puppet. He’d be saying, "Based on market research . . . "And people in the audience could interact, tell him what to say. Kind of like in "The Terminator."
Our Playwrights Panel
Ben Tyler, 47 — Tempe-based scribe of historically based plays "Guv, the Musical," "The Wallace and Ladmo Show," "Goldwater: Mr. Conservative" and others.
James Garcia, 44 — Former foreign news correspondent with the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman turned Ahwatukee Foothills playwright and artistic director for the Colores Actors-Writers Workshop. Working with Chris Danowski on an antiwar comic play tentatively called "Odai and Qusai are Dead."
Chris Danowski, 36 — Artistic director for Theater in My Basement and ¡Teatro Caliente!
Mark Turvin, 38 — Phoenix-based playwright and theater critic. His late ‘90s short play titled "Satan, Tomb Raider and CNN" dealt with school shootings.
Matthew Wiener, 43 — Producing artistic director for Actors Theatre in Phoenix. Co-adapted Charles Dickens’ "Christmas Carol" for Actors Theatre’s holiday show.
Terry Earp, 54 — Phoenix performance artist and playwright whose works include 2002's "Have Tassels, Will Travel," about a ‘60s/’70s stripper retired to Apache Junction, and "Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier."
Amy Dominy, 39 — In her final year with Arizona State University master’s program for playwrights. Works include "Oy, It’s a Boy," read in 2000 at Arizona Jewish Theatre. Playscript style is based more on personal relationships than events.