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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

By now, most people in Los Angeles have heard about Stuff Happens--David Hare's theatrical rendering of the events leading up to our invasion of Iraq--currently receiving its American premiere at the Mark Taper Forum.

What people might not be aware of is that a ticket for Stuff Happens actually provides admission for two different shows. The first show, of course, is the one put on by the actors, reading from the script on stage. But the second show is the one put on by the audience each performance.

Opening night of Stuff Happens was so rowdy that the actors on stage had to regularly wait for the proverbial peanut gallery to quiet down before the play could continue.

The last play I saw where the audience was such a factor was a piece entitled Golden Prospects, a wonderful play put on at the Powerhouse Theatre about a year ago. Golden Prospects was the story of the growth of Los Angeles from desert to oil town told in the form of Victorian Melodrama. Before curtain, the audience was invited by the emcee to boo the dastardly villains and cheer the strong hearted heroes.

Stuff Happens is not an old-fashioned melodrama, but on opening night the amount of booing and hissing clearly indicated that many in the audience considered some members of the Bush cabinet to be sniveling, moustache-twirling villains who might as well be tying the country to the railroad tracks.

I remember seeing Stuff Happens last year in London, during the charged election season, but I don't recall British audiences reacting so much to the play, except for laughter--directed primarily at Tony Blair.

Playwright David Hare and director Gordon Davidson took some of these British moments out of this production, perhaps fearing that American audiences wouldn't understand a joke about fox hunting. But besides that, the play was the same.

So why then are American audiences so compelled to cheer, boo and hiss at this play? I thought that on opening night, perhaps the audience had been secretly coached to react to the work; but when I went again last Tuesday, the crowd acted much the same. At first, the only difference was who got the vocal jeers. Last Tuesday, Dakin Matthew's Dick Cheney got the biggest boos upon his entrance, whereas on opening night, Lorraine Toussaint's Condoleezza Rice earned the biggest chorus of hisses.

But then later in the performance, a monologue spoken by a character playing a Palestinian woman, almost stopped the show as it earned both applause and then boos from the audience. Stuff Happens may be catnip to Bush-bashers, but it is engaging people on a number of political topics, and each night with a different audience it becomes a different show. I have a feeling Stuff Happens is going to be performed all over the country during the next four years and I look forward to seeing productions of it in Cheyenne, Wyoming and Crawford, Texas. It'll be fun to see who gets booed and cheered there.

Theater-goers tired of the lead-up to war and more interested in the effects of combat, should know about a small, new play by Jane Martin titled Flags.

Martin's work, which aims to combine Greek tragedy and American, kitchen sink realism focuses on the fictional Desmopoulis family: a working class clan that lives in this country's heartland. The youngest Desmopoulis son, Carter, is a soldier in Iraq and the play's drama centers on what happens when he doesn't come back.

Most of Flags is simple and direct (and surprisingly powerful), but occasionally it employs a Greek chorus, which orates using stilted, obtuse language, in an attempt to inflate the tragedy. But a small-town family losing a son in war needs no invocation of the Greeks to become high drama. The suffering of the Desmopoulis family--and the strange, unexpected ways loss changes them--is a valuable portrait of the intimate, personal tragedies that make up the greater horror that is our nation's involvement in Iraq.

Flags runs at the Odyssey Theatre through July 24, Stuff Happens continues at the Mark Taper Forum until July 17.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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