WHEN Through 3/25: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

WHERE Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division

PRICE $10, “more if you’ve got it, free if you’re broke”

INFO 773-347-1041

“Mom died today,” says President George W. Bush in The Strangerer. “Or yesterday, maybe. Or maybe a few years ago, I don’t know. Anyhow she’s dead now.”

Barbara Bush isn’t dead, of course. But her imagined passing is a crucial element in Theater Oobleck’s new political satire The Strangerer, which filters Bush through the prism of Albert Camus’ 1942 novel The Stranger, envisioning the president as a present-day equivalent of Camus’ antihero Mersault. Bush’s comment echoes Mersault’s famous first line: “Mother died today. Or perhaps it was yesterday.”

What does Camus’ existential classic–about a French Algerian who finds meaning in his meaningless life when he goes on trial for killing an Arab–have to do with 21st-century American politics? Plenty, in this unpredictable, hilarious, and provocative play by Oobleck member Mickle Maher. Set during the 2004 presidential campaign, The Strangerer takes place in Coral Gables, Florida, where Bush and Senator John Kerry faced off in their first debate. The moderator, PBS icon Jim Lehrer, declares his intention to focus on foreign policy and homeland security. But like most political candidates, Bush and Kerry dodge and twist Lehrer’s questions to convey their own messages.

The result, like so many televised debates, is an exercise in absurdist theater–but with a bizarre twist. Instead of simply selling his positions or his leadership, Bush tries to kill Lehrer. On the air, several times, using a knife, a handgun, a pillow, a bottle of cyanide, even a Balinese kris. His attempts to murder the moderator fail as completely as his efforts to export democracy to Iraq. Nonetheless, like Mersault, he knows that what’s important is the court of public opinion. So rather than answer questions about his management of the war, he devotes his two-minute statements and 90-second rebuttals to a long, scrupulously detailed account of the events motivating his attempt at homicide: an evening out that included a trip to the theater, where he saw another tale of symbolically charged murder, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Bush’s narrative reveals him to be profoundly isolated in a way that’s symptomatic of society’s emotionally charged political, religious, and cultural schisms. No one really listens to him. Not the intimidated, out-of-touch Democrats or their pompous, pedantic standard-bearer. Not the media establishment Lehrer embodies. And not the audience at the debate or the divided electorate they supposedly represent. “Half of them are listening just to make fun of how I talk,” Bush says of the people he’s been elected to serve. “Other half always agrees with what I say and so is not listening because they think they know what I am going to say and have already previously agreed. So I’m alone.”

Camus’ atheist Mersault may seem a peculiar counterpart to the famously born-again Bush. But Maher perceives in both men an uncompromising, perhaps heroic commitment to the truth as they see it, regardless of others’ opinions. In The Stranger Mersault is convicted of murder not because he’s guilty of the crime (though he is), but because his refusal to weep at his mother’s funeral offends public morality. And in The Strangerer Maher satirically exaggerates the stubbornness that makes Bush so controversial: what some see as strength, others deride as a state of denial. Like Mersault, Bush explains his actions and sensations in clinical detail yet remains a mysterious figure, troubling yet strangely admirable–“the only Christ we deserve,” as Camus said of his famous character.

Like Alice’s Wonderland, Maher’s universe is at once coherent and mad. Ryan Gardner’s set, with two lecterns and a desk triangularly arranged on a red carpet, is a slick replica of the stage at the University of Miami convocation center. Bush’s attacks on Lehrer are framed by dramatically slow blackouts by lighting designer (and Reader staffer) Martha Bayne and by Chris Schoen’s eerie soundscape of softly howling wind and dreamy piano music. Production values aren’t usually a high priority in Oobleck shows, but here they’re crucial in establishing a credible environment for this politico-philosophical fantasia.

So are the incisive, subtle performances by playwright Maher as a somnolent, stiff-necked Kerry, Colm O’Reilly as a blandly unflappable Lehrer, and Guy Massey, whose Bush is nothing short of brilliant. Massey has the Decider’s mannerisms down cold: the odd pauses and arbitrary emphases when he speaks, the heh-heh laugh that sounds simultaneously ingratiating, contemptuous, and paranoid, the wide-eyed, eager-to-please smile that morphs into a mean, squinty grimace. Massey delivers not just an on-target impersonation, however, but a richly detailed portrait of a man on the edge, desperately recounting his actions in the hope of illuminating their meaning.

The Strangerer makes no mention of how Bush squandered his “political capital” after the 2004 election or of his present dismal standing. Yet Maher reminds us that his extreme actions have led to an absurd political agenda that shaped, and still shapes, all our lives. Trying to knock off Jim Lehrer on national television is really no more outrageous than letting loose the dogs of war in the Middle East. And Lehrer and Kerry’s ineffectual efforts to react rationally to the president’s attempts at murder echo the responses of the press and Democrats to Bush’s obvious deception when he first “sold” the Iraq invasion. Bush isn’t running for reelection, but both parties’ presidential contenders are struggling to define themselves, their past actions,and their visions for the future in the context he created.

Most parodies of Bush turn him into a moron, easy fodder for cheap-shot malaprops on Saturday Night Live and late-night talk shows. But Theater Oobleck takes Bush–and what he embodies in American society and the human condition–very seriously. The Strangerer makes the case that Bush may very well be the Christ we deserve.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kristin Basta.