Dallas — He’s ba-ack.
Dallas-raised actor/writer/impressionist David Carl scored last spring with his zany Celebrity One-Man Hamlet at Kitchen Dog Theater—a whirlwind send-up of our celebrity-mad culture (with finger puppets). This week he comes back to KDT at the Trinity River Arts Center from Dec. 7 to 10 with his latest NYC hit, Trump Lear.
It’s a continuum of sorts—because this time, the larger-than-life celebrity Carl has in his satirical sights isn’t a fictional prince but The Donald himself—who, through the alchemy of our obsession with fame and entertainment, has become the president of the United States.
And then what happens?
Carl nudges his story into a dystopian near-future, in which the First Amendment no longer protects and the Prez, as is his wont, is seeing red about an actor (topsy-turvily named Carl David) who’s created a comedy piece called Trump Lear, a riff on Shakespeare’s play about a touchy, erratic, ranting old king and his grown children.
Co-written with the show’s director Michole Buoncosino, a longtime Carl collaborator, Trump Lear finds the actor arrested and in prison, alone but for the piped-in voice of DJT, who angrily demands that the actor perform his play—for life-and-death stakes.
Reviews of Trump Lear’s run at Under St. Marks in New York’s East Village called the show a “wince-inducing, utterly engaging” and “decidedly fun” wild ride, full of laughs…and groans of recognition, too. Trump Lear is presented by Kitchen Dog Theater in association with Project Y Theatre Company.
TheaterJones caught up with David Carl by phone from New York, where he was getting ready for his four-day run in Dallas.
TheaterJones: I hear you’re a Lake Highlands High alum.
David Carl: Yes, class of ’99.
Were you a comedian in high school?
I always liked comedy; when I was 17, I played Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls; that’s a big deal at any age. You think you’re doing amazing acting, but I don’t know. They’re fun experiences, and they mean so much to you.
It’s a start though. What do they say, you need 10,000 hours before you’re good?
Yes, they do say that. Tim Johnson was one of our directors there, and to have him was cool and amazing. And Nancy Poynter was also a master high school theater educator. Looking back we were really lucky, because both were very, very good at their jobs.
Do you think of yourself now as having come up from the stand-up or improv world?
I came up through the theater world first, and then improv—and there’s a whole area of comedy in New York called character comedy, and doing a solo show is the natural progression for that. I’ve done stand-up, but it was impressions and characters, not jokes about me. I’ve always had a character-based thing going. I did plays in undergrad theater, but eventually wanted to combine all these elements [as in his one-man Hamlet]. Usually you see only five minutes of an impression, not an hour. And tinkering around with that concept, I found out it could be great fun.
What would you say are the building blocks, the essential pieces, of a great Trump impression?
[Laughs.] The mouth is really key. Trump’s voice is weird, very strange, and took me a long time to get.
What is it? It’s not exactly a New York sound….
It’s a little bit New York, a little bit of Brando. When you first start doing it, it’s easy to take things too far one way. So I’d drift toward Brando and De Niro, and then think, no that’s not quite it either.
Though Trump might love that, the tough Italian guys?
He’d be delighted with Brando, but maybe not De Niro anymore. You do a lot of tinkering and sitting in front of a mirror or camera. There’s variety too: he has sad, depressed Trump and energized rally Trump, at a little higher pitch—and sometimes he is more New York, like [George W.] Bush was more Texas at times. It’s not a fun voice to do; it’s taxing.
You did comedy shows during the election campaign where you voiced all of the presidential candidates in a debate-style format. Did your characterization of Trump change after he was elected?
Yes, it did change. Campaign Trump was very blustery; he seems worn out now, fatigued and disappointed like everything isn’t so easy. He’s a bit of a pouty Trump now. So much bravado before.
But my show is written in the future, so there’s more license to imagine what he might be like years from now.
Your story is about an actor in a near-future America who is arrested for doing a satirical Trump Lear—and then Trump [who is heard, not seen] swoops in to interrogate him like the voice of God.
Yes, and he tells him: Do your show, and if I like it you live; if I don’t, you die. And because it’s in the future, it’s like a combo of all the different Trumps he’s shown us so far.
Trump here isn’t still a kind of clown figure, as many people saw him in the campaign—but someone darker?
Even at the beginning [of his run] it felt dark to me. I wasn’t thinking he was a comedy goldmine. I was doing the candidates before Trump got in, and I wasn’t too happy to add him into my show; at that point, he was just this annoying billionaire representing a lot of things I didn’t care for. It had always been like a joke that he would run for President.
But the problem, as everyone who plays him says, is how do you out-Trump Trump? You have to go further than he does, which is pretty far. And I’ve had to be thoughtful about the points I’m making, whether they’re too preachy, and so on. So on one hand it’s been a [good] challenge to me as an artist—but I’d be delighted to be challenged by someone else now, someone less toxic! It’s a funny situation to be in.
I would guess your audience is a bit self-selecting, and doesn’t include great crowds of Trump supporters—or would I be wrong about that?
I’ve been doing the show in New York. So if there were voters there who supported Trump, none came up to me afterwards and said anything. Before the election though, in shows we did in Boston, we greeted the audience at the door and dotted their hands red or blue as they identified themselves as Republicans or Democrats. There was a bar at the venue, and time to talk after the show—and Trump supporters were very willing to talk about him.
And here’s what I heard: They enjoyed laughing at him being a bully. That was their guy up there, and they liked seeing him act that way. To them, comedy seemed to be being mean to people. That kind of defines what bullying is to me. I have that in myself, of course, but I don’t like it. It’s artistically helpful to put it on display, so we can laugh at him being terrible—but it’s a double-edged sword, too, of ‘oh, no, there are all these people here who don’t see the irony.’ It’s like being at summer camp movie night and finding out lots of the campers liked quoting all the hateful lines from Full Metal Jacket—never thinking they were bad things to say.
Trump Lear gets into First Amendment territory and other heavy-duty issues, and yet you’re still playing it primarily for laughs. Do audiences respond differently from show to show?
Some weeks, maybe because it’s been a rough news week, the audiences actually laugh harder. And sometimes it’s tough; you can feel they’re thinking oh, yeah, this week, it feels like a bit more like a tragedy. It keeps me on my toes as a performer, knowing I have to give this audience a show for the vibe that’s there today. I like to have moments where you don’t know how everyone will react.
My goal as a writer and actor is to put questions out there—not to shove anything down someone’s throat. I’d rather people think about these ideas, using comedy as one of several tools to open people up and bring them together. Whatever points I have to make are about things I’m concerned about myself right now, the kind of stuff I’d talk about with friends.
Do you ever get shout-outs from the audience?
There’s some, though I don’t want to give away too much.
When did the King Lear connection occur to you—the cranky, ranting old man and his grown children?
We were doing the [solo] Hamlet in Chicago before the election, and started batting around the idea—because the story of the kids and the old king was so right. Also, King Lear is always played by a lovely, vulnerable old actor we all love—and Trump is totally not those things. Even the people who love him, they love him because he’s a jerk. It just felt like a funny combo.
But after November we waited to see if Trump made it to inauguration, and then to see if things turned out to really be that bad. But by January, we pretty much knew what we were in for as a planet, and I started writing with Michole Biancosino, my co-creator and director.
It isn’t, of course, a beat for beat version of Lear—for one thing, it’s heavily interrupted by Trump all the way through. But so far, the Lear fans in the audience have said they were happy with it. I’m still waiting for that one person to come up yelling ‘I thought you’d be doing every scene!’ But this is Trump Lear, and Trump would never allow that.
Is it good to be getting some time back home?
Coming back for the Hamlet show in March was a blast! So many of my mentors came to the show—the director from my first church musical came, the music director came, my different music teachers, the high school directors—pretty much everyone who helped me understand that I wanted to do something creative. It was very special.
And I love Kitchen Dog Theater! I was the house manager at [KDT’s high school playwriting program] PUP Fest back then. I’m so glad I got that experience, because the company does amazing new plays, and very cool spins on old plays. Kitchen Dog was my introduction to what a professional theater could be like.