How do you handle a problem like Robert Mugabe? He's a great speaker, an ambitious statesman, a tireless activist against white supremacy -- and a ruthless killer of innocent Zimbabweans.
As African dictators go, Mugabe has a fairly standard résumé, complete with corruption, cronyism and body bags. Like Amin and Qaddafi, Mugabe has some psychological issues, too -- in a notorious speech, he once compared himself to Hitler. Unlike Qaddafi, though, Mugabe is content to bully his own people ... and unlike Amin, Mugabe is still alive, an "elected" president since 1980.
Breakfast With Mugabe, staged by Quantum Theatre in its U.S. premiere, is a provocative thought experiment: What if Mugabe talked with a therapist? The result is Fraser Grace's tough, intelligent and suspenseful drama, wherein Western science awkwardly intersects with African charisma.
Dr. Andrew Peric meets with Mugabe, prods the president's guilt and asks about his past, knowing full well that Mugabe could have him executed for fun. Peric tries to maintain an objective stance, but he's doomed. He's a typical white African -- comforted by his European reason, his academic credentials and his bourgeois birth, but floundering in a Zimbabwe that recognizes none of these things. Pitted against a culture of spirit-healing and Trotskyist revolution, what chance does psychotherapy have?
Karla Boos directs an impressive cast: As Peric, Ezra Barnes has the soothing, often subversive voice of a troubled therapist. Rebecca Thomas plays Grace Mugabe, the dictator's manipulative wife, with a keen accent and a sociopathic edge. Gregory Mikell is Gabriel Marunda, Mugabe's bodyguard. This small cast is riveting from beginning to end, building their relationships piece by integral piece.
The only drawback to Mugabe is Mugabe himself. Don Marshall is a magnificent actor, gushing dictatorial egotism with every line. But here, Marshall is too magnificent: Marshall speaks so slowly, so deliberately, that the audience drifts into mental ether. His speech is staggered and endless, his words islands in a sea of silence. Mugabe concerns unfamiliar people and politics, and it's already hard for an American audience to follow; there's a reason the play was written and premiered in England. And Marshall's deliberateness is pointless, really: Everything Mugabe says, in his strange double-speak, is quickly summarized by Peric.
The pacing may reflect the real Mugabe, but it's deadening, especially in Quantum's cavernous borrowed space -- a converted showroom in the gutted Lazarus department store. Mugabe is too moving, too sophisticated, too important to risk losing the audience halfway. "Stay with us," the president famously declared. Indeed.
Breakfast with Mugabe continues through Feb. 24. Quantum Theatre at Piatt Place, 301 Fifth Ave., Downtown. 412-394-3353 or www.quantumtheatre.com.
- Talking cures: Ezra Barnes (left) and Don Marshall in Quantum's Breakfast With Mugabe.