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Michael Moore: The Terms of My Surrender

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - August 10, 2017

Michael Moore: The Terms of My Surrender by Michael Moore; script consultant Colleen Werthmann. Directed by Michael Mayer. Scenic Design by David Rockwell. Costume Design by Jeff Mahshie. Lighting Design by Kevin Adams. Sound Design by Brian Ronan. Projections & Video Design by Andrew Lazarow. Movement Director: Noah Racey.
Theatre: Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Michael Moore
Photo by Joan Marcus

Have you seen the electoral map of New York City for the 2016 Presidential election? It's basically a sea of beautiful blue with a few ugly splotches of blood red—except of course for Staten Island, which is the reverse.

I bring this up because the filmmaker, author, social critic, and liberal icon Michael Moore's Broadway debut show, The Terms of My Surrender, has been dismissed by some as an example of "preaching to the converted." But, of course, physical location is only a small part of the equation. Although it's undeniable that what Moore has to say would more importantly be heard by residents of the most conservative towns in the reddest states in the union, what would be the point of presenting this show in some such place if no one there would buy tickets for it anyway? So I for one welcome Moore to the historic Belasco Theatre for a limited, 12-week engagement. (Another hero of the common man, Bruce Springsteen, is set to make his Broadway debut this fall, and the two shows are scheduled to overlap for three weeks, which is kinda neat.)

Fittingly and powerfully, The Terms of My Surrender begins with an audio clip of "O Fortuna," the relentless opening chorus of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana—a work that was wildly popular in Nazi Germany—accompanying horrifying footage of "Donald Trump for President" crowds projected against David Rockwell's huge-American-flag set. (Andrew Lazarow is the projection & video designer). Then Moore takes the stage, and pretty much the first thing to come out of his mouth is the much-debated question, "How the fuck did this happen?"

He goes on to rail against the electoral college, the decimation of the middle class, and the shocking dumbing-down of America as exemplified by "reality shows"—of course including The Apprentice, which for years entertained millions with the ludicrous spectacle of Trump "firing" one sad sack after another. (Hey, we no longer have Christians being thrown to lions in the Colosseum, so apparently some people have to have their blood lust sated in other ways.)

Based on what I saw and heard at his performance on Tuesday evening, August 8, Moore is keeping the content of the show very much up to date. That was the night of the day when Trump, in a statement from the golf course where he seems to spend more of his time than in the White House, promised to rain down "fire and fury" upon North Korea in response to that country's nuclear threat. Moore's comment: "No good idea has ever come out of Bedminster, New Jersey." August 8 was also, as Moore pointed out, the night before the 43rd anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation of the Presidency, which he encouraged the audience to take as reason for hope.

The Terms of My Surrender, directed by Michael Mayer, has its share of laughs, many of them centered around a mock TV game show in which Moore seeks to demonstrate that the dumbest Canadian in the audience is still smarter than the smartest American. Neither of the two women chosen to compete on the night I attended seemed to be plants, and a colleague of mine who had been to an earlier performance said that both contestants on that occasion were male. (The woman from the U.S. actually won by one point on my night, prompting Moore to exclaim, "You're the first American that's won during previews!")

Still, as I probably don't have to tell you, comedy is not the main goal of this endeavor. Highly unnerving are Moore's stories of the many death threats and attacks he has suffered in reaction to the views expressed in his writings and personal appearances, in such films as Bowling for Columbine, Farenheit 9/11, and Sicko, and in his Academy Award acceptance speech for the first of those films. Amazing is his tale of how the entire original print run of his book Stupid White Men:...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! came very close to being "pulped" by the publisher before it hit the bookstores. (He imparts how it avoided that fate and went on to become a best-seller.) Most unnerving, amazing, and heartbreaking of all is his detailed account of how the people in his hometown of Flint, Michigan were denied drinkable tap water under the watch of that state's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, resulting in the sickening of the general population and what Moore says is permanent brain damage to countless young children due to lead poisoning.

The Terms of My Surrender is technically not a one-person show. Three other performers turn up on stage briefly at various points, but the timing and nature of their appearances is considered "spoiler" information to the point where the audience doesn't get to read their names and bios until we receive slips handed out by the ushers as we exit the Belasco. So I will say no more about their participation, although a vague hint may be found in the "Movement Director" credit for Noah Racey that's contained in the Playbill proper.

Coincidentally, this show is playing literally down the block from 1984, another hair-raising cautionary tale of totalitarianism. Early on in the proceedings, Moore says to the audience, "Maybe we should just surrender"—but he obviously doesn't mean it, or he wouldn't be here, nor would we. And when he does clearly and succinctly state the terms of his surrender, they seem eminently reasonable to anyone with at least half a brain. A recurring theme of his show, illustrated by several striking examples, is that one person can make a huge difference when it comes to social and political activism. That's an idea we should all take to heart and put into practice.


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