Berkeley Rep's It Can't Happen Here is a celebration of hope amidst dark times. Fighting through the pandemic and revitalising an old form of storytelling, this radio show sends out a message to uplift our spirits.
Based on a 1935 novel written by Sinclair Lewis to warn about a possible American Hitler, this radio show centers around the authoritarian rise to power that we’re all very tired of by now. The first episode pelts listeners with nameless voices, all spouting different, but equally divisive, views of the (arguably) charismatic populist, Buzz Windrip. Revered by some, mocked by others, feared by the smartest, Windrip (played by David Kelly) cavorts into the Oval Office through a series of lies and mirage-like promises. But we are told by the creators of the show in a free pre-show introduction not to take these similarities to our current times too seriously, and I certainly don't.
The first episode has the overall feeling of a self-righteous screaming match and is just a bit too familiar to be called entertainment. But as the show goes on, its world becomes much more terrifying. Windrip does things in office that are recognizable to today’s US residents—appointing yes men, praising violent civilians, gaslighting justice in a myriad of frightening ways—but he also does things that I am endlessly grateful are not a part of our everyday lives.
The later half of the show is a barrage of plot-stuffed, character-packed escalations that replace the demagogue we know well with a sickening series of horrors. The voices that we’ve just managed to tie to names are, respectively, caught at the border while fleeing, thrust into brutal concentration camps, and even shot outside a police station.
Though the later episodes are much easier to get through, they stray from believable reality to something much more sinister. Any modern-day parallels from the beginning of the show now seem blown way out of proportion. Such dystopias painted as prediction are dangerous and lean toward liberal fear-mongering.
But within the midst of those imaginary dark times, there is the inextinguishable spark of optimism. From foolish early wishes about preventing Windrip's rise to the deep yearning within later resistance attempts, there is always a struggle for a better future.
Sissy, played by the magnetic voice of Carolina Sanchez, closes the show alone in an old printing press. Half her family is in prison or dead and she’s being targeted by ever-encroaching militias, but she continues working under cover of night to spread the resistance however she can. Suddenly reunited with her long-lost love (there is a lot of plot in these half-hour episodes), she is faced with the decision to live a life of happiness and silence or to continue her work. Swallowing around the danger, she breathes, "I'm ready."
These, the closing words of the show, echo the mentality of those who created the show itself. In the post-show talkback you can watch for free, the show’s production team speaks of adaptation as an exciting challenge, not a hindrance, of coronavirus, and all that they persevered through to bring this show to life.
Several performers, forced to evacuate their homes amidst the wildfires that ravaged up and down the West Coast, struggled to find good places to record their pieces. In the live talk-back after the show, Lisa Peterson, the show’s director, described the insanity of the situation. “And those folks, whose friends had lost their phones and the Wi-Fi tower had burned down,” those folks had to move from house to house, suddenly coming on the call, “I think my friend has Wi-Fi now!”
Carolina Sanchez, who works as a nurse as well as an actress, attended rehearsals out of Florida during the height of their COVID surge. She would often come to rehearsals in scrubs, covered in layers of coronavirus particles and the emotional and mental strain that comes along with them.
The message shared by the story, and by those who persevered to share it, is one of challenging trials. Of innovative triumph. And of hope in very dark times.
Regardless of whether we've lived under a totalitarian military regime, had to flee our houses due to the insanity of our extreme climate crisis, or hear daily lies and deception made official by the highest office in the land, this is something we should all hear.
It Can't Happen Here is a warning of something that could happen, something that isn't (yet) happening, but it's also a story of resistance. Bright lights in darkened printing presses. And fighting for what you love, whether it is people, ideals, or the existence of theater during pandemics.
This is a story not necessarily about our times, but certainly for our times. For all of us. Or at least, while it’s still playing free through November 13!
It Can't Happen Here, presented by Berkeley Rep, streamed for free across the country October 13-November 13, 2020. For more information see here.