On Nov. 7, 2020, Rudy Giuliani held a press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, a Philadelphia business specializing in mulching, pruning shrubs, weed control and more.
Giuliani took the opportunity to rave that Joe Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania was the result of voter fraud. Yet his message was obscured by the mystery of why the Trump campaign chose to host the event at Total Landscaping, an unglamorous enterprise located near a jail, a crematorium and a sex shop.
Theatre Vertigo’s audio drama Landscape, written by Sara Jean Accuardi and directed by Clara-Liis Hillier, imagines an answer to that question. The result of the speculation is a touching, disturbing and hysterical tale of American folly that takes the temperature of the nation using phone calls, voicemails, voice memos and text messages read aloud.
While Trump looms over Landscape, the play is written mostly from the perspective of Bets (Victoria Alvarez-Chacon). She works for Total Landscaping, but that’s a mere fraction of her frantic life that includes pursuing a theater degree and clashing with her ex-husband Cory (Tom Mounsey), whose callous attitude toward COVID threatens their asthmatic son.
Fiction and reality collide when Bets, who is exhausted and worried about her mother’s heart surgery, receives a phone call. The caller asks her a question and she hazily answers—only to later realize that in her delirium, she agreed to let the Trump campaign use Total Landscaping as the backdrop for Giuliani’s bloviating.
If you followed the saga of the Total Landscaping press conference in real time, you know that what happened is even zanier than Landscape suggests, but that’s beside the point. In the play, Total Landscaping is more than a location—it’s a reflection of some of the deepest scars on America’s soul.
Notwithstanding Cory’s assessment of Biden, Trump and the election—”they both suck. It still matters”—the characters often seem politically disengaged. Some are sympathetic to Trump and some speak his name as if they’re choking on disinfectant, but there are too many strains and stresses in their lives for them to dwell on the 45th president’s ambitions and delusions.
Yet when Total Landscaping is selected for the press conference, the lives of Bet, Cory and everyone around them begin to revolve around Trump, like moons drawn into his orbit. Cory agrees to shop for American flags, and even his girlfriend, Ainsley (Jacquelle Davis), joins the crusade to Trump-ify Total Landscaping by printing signs at a FedEx Office store.
While Landscape offers a chilling chronicle of ordinary existence being overtaken by tyranny, the humanity of the characters is never in doubt. Like crystals of eccentricity, vulnerability and yearning, each phone conversation reveals a piece of who they are, making it all the more tragic that they’re becoming lost in the garish sweep of contemporary American politics.
As Susan Soon He Stanton’s exquisitely poignant play Today Is My Birthday proved, restricting a narrative to the phone makes the experience more intimate, not less. Communicating solely through voice has a way of making you feel painfully exposed, as Bets learns when Ainsley accuses her of being “uptight” about COVID.
In a face-to-face exchange, the cruelty of that word—it makes it sound like Bets is concerned about the cleanliness of a carpet, not saving lives—might have been mitigated by body language. On the phone, it zips through the air like a hurled dagger, mocking Bets’ concern for her son.
The pain of that moment echoes another play that Accuardi wrote during the pandemic, Joy Frickin’ Hates Her Dumb Stupid Room. A tale of a girl, a hamster and a very funny reincarnation, Joy ended with its protagonist laughing, but it was left to the audience to decide if she was bursting with delight or cackling as she descended into an emotional abyss.
There’s less ambiguity in Landscape. As a pointed reference to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol reminds us, the Total Landscaping press conference was just one of many absurd and dangerous chapters in Trump’s war on democracy—a war in which Bets and her colleagues witlessly become soldiers.
It’s easy to gaze upon that bleak reality and despair. Yet there’s something perversely reassuring about Landscape’s refusal to indulge in false hope. Its relentless honesty isn’t just a choice—it’s one small step toward actually making truth and justice the American way.
LISTEN: Landscape streams at theatrevertigo.org through Feb. 27. $5-$20 (pay what you will).