President George W. Bush was convicted of war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, on the night I attended The Trial of an American President, an earnest, informative and flawed mock trial. The jury voted 5-4, which is not bad, considering the circumstances.
After all, the jurors were selected at random from an audience at Theatre Row on the liberal West Side of Manhattan. And if first-time playwright Dick Tarlow and co-author Bill Smith do attempt to provide the 43rd president with a defense, it’s not an especially vigorous one.
More production photos as NewYorkTheater.me
Over the course of the three-day trial (actually, about 80 minutes), the prosecutor (Michael Rogers) elaborates on the three charges against Bush – for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; for the U.S. military occupation of the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004 and the resulting civilian casualties; and for Bush’s approval of torture.
The prosecutor details his accusations with specific incidents and backs them up with videotaped testimony by (actors portraying) victims and survivors.
“There were no weapons of mass destruction; that is a fact,” the prosecutor concludes in his summation. “There were crimes of occupation. That is a fact. There was torture beyond anything previously known to the world by a civilized nation. That too is a fact….”
George Bush (Tony Carlin) acts as his own counsel, answering each of the charges one by one as they are presented. In his summation, he says:
“All I wanted to do was protect my people… and free a country from a despot, murderer, to have Iraqi people enjoy the same freedom we have here in America. And yes, I should have reacted faster and with more force after Saddam was gone. We didn’t plan that well enough. Obviously. As for the false intelligence, as I said in my book, ‘No one was more shocked and angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction.’…We made mistakes. I admit that. But mistakes do not make me a criminal.”
I’ve never attended a war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court, but I suspect they are run more stringently and formally than what’s depicted on stage at Theatre Row. The fictional prosecutor is occasionally snarky and insulting, at one point labeling Bush “a Texan with his guns ready for battle.” Much of what passes for evidence in the play would be unlikely to pass muster in the Court; for example, the prosecutor quotes a book by Richard Clarke, the former head of the National Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism unit, who wrote that Bush ordered him to “find a link” between 9/11 and Iraq. The citation of Clarke’s book is one of the few times that the authors source any of their information (not even in the program.) We don’t know whether the video testimony by the survivors is verbatim, nor how reliable it is. Given how much of the debate over the Iraq invasion revolves around the proper and improper assessment of evidence, it behooves the authors to have been more diligent in the presentation of their research. This is especially true if they are going to ask the audience to make a judgment based on it.
A more trustworthy presentation would have been much preferred to the clunky efforts of the production to suggest the trappings of the court, such as portentous echoing sounds (which seemed modeled on the TV series “Law and Order”) and some tin-ear exposition by “the narrator” (Mahira Kakkar)
One could argue that The Trial of An American President is well timed, because of how prominently the invasion of Iraq and its consequences have figured as an issue in the 2016 presidential contest. On the other hand, one could argue that it is poorly timed; it opens in a week when a photograph of Michelle Obama hugging George W. Bush went round the world, and a candidate for president has made proposals (such as killing family members of terrorists) that make George W. Bush seem positively cuddly.
The Trial of an American President is on stage at the Theatre Row-Lion Theater (410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036) through October 15.
Tickets and details
The Trial of An American President. Written by Dick Tarlow with Bill Smith. Directed by Stephen Eich, set designed by Ann Beyersdorfer, lighting designed by Ben Green, sound designed by Alex Dietz-Kest, featuring Tony Carlin as President George W. Bush, Mahira Kakkar as narrator, Michael Rogers as prosecutor. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.