Eighty-four years after theaters in 17 states across America simultaneously opened “It Can’t Happen Here,” a dramatization of Sinclair Lewis’ cautionary tale imagining the rise of fascism in America, nine New York City theater companies are staging the play in six languages online together, days before a crucial American election. The idea alone is a thrilling declaration of solidarity, even as it sounds unworkable. But this production of It Can’t Happen Here, available only through Sunday November 1 at 1 p.m., works surprisingly well.
“We are seeing something that is history and art and excitement,” says theater historian Nahma Sandrow, concluding a preface explaining the history of the play that is itself fascinating.
Each theater company is responsible for an entire scene. First up is the cast of New York Classical Theatre, portraying the folksy townspeople of Ft. Beulah, Vermont in Act I, Scene 1, as Doremus Jessup, the owner of the Ft. Beulah Daily Informer gets into an argument with his devoted employee Miss Lorinda Pike over the nomination of Buzz Windrip to be President of the United States at the National Political Convention that evening.
“What’s the matter with Windrip?” Doremus asks. “He may not be Daniel Webster, but he’s a real man of the people.”
Miss Lorinda tells him what’s wrong. With the whole country beset by unemployment, “fear everywhere, millions tired of disciplining themselves. And along comes a medicine man with the loudest voice in the whole world, and he shouts that if we’ll just put ourselves in his hands…then he’ll do a miracle.”
It’s the first of many shocks of recognition as the plot unfolds, most of the characters from the town hoodwinked by Windrip in his demagogic rise to power, and then winding up either corrupted or destroyed by him …or often, both.
Another startlingly familiar moment: When Buzz harangues and demeans his Secretary of State: “Nobody is necessary to me. I am the president.” ”
And when a critic of Windrip says of his paramilitary army: “Your Corpos are trying to kill the soul of America.”
And when Buzz whines: “I thought it would
be more fun to be President. . .first American dictator in his-
tory, by God! I used to imagine myself coming right in here and slapping
Abe Lincoln’s feet off the desk and putting mine up on it. .”
All such relevant references are in the original script; nothing has been added for this version. The English subtitles are verbatim from the play.
Each company is assigned specific scenes. So the cast of the Israeli Artists Project is up next, performing in Hebrew as the townsfolk in Act I, Scene 2; the separate cast of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene perform in Yiddish as those same characters in Act I, Scene 3; followed by scenes performed by Repertorio Espanol in Spanish; by Kairos Italy Theater in Italian; by TARTE (Turkish American Repertory Theater & Entertainment) in Turkish; as well as by the English-speaking companies Pan Asian Rep, New Heritage Theatre Group, and Playful Substance. In each case, the stage directions are spoken in English, and there are English captions throughout. With more than 60 actors in all, each character (who is likely to be portrayed by at least a half dozen different actors by the end of the play) is labeled in each scene. The Zoom screen makes this complicated staging much clearer — indeed, much more possible — than it would have been on an actual stage.
There are payoffs to hearing Buzz Windrip scoff in Yiddish at the idea that he wants to be a dictator. It’s the perfect language for scoffing, but the word “dictator” sounds a bit too like the German to believe him.