By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Photo by Rick Pickman
When Dominic Behan wrote his bitter Irish anthem, “The Patriot Game,” he didn’t envision an actual competition to see which players are the most patriotic. That kind of contest would be foreign to anyone who lives in a country where the national flag usually flies only above post offices and at football games — most countries in the world, that is. Such a game, however, might not seem out of place here, in America, where the Stars and Stripes fly, row upon row, at gas stations, used-car lots and swap meets. Playwright Charles A. Duncombe knows this; he mixes reality-TV shows with exhibitionist patriotism and adds a helping of post-9/11 paranoia to create a harrowing night of theater.
Patriot Act: A Reality Show begins in darkness with jingoistic country & western songs pumped into Santa Monica’s City Garage theater, followed by the late Ray Charles’ soulful rendition of “America the Beautiful” and the “Bush” version of “The United States of Whatever,” while a game-show contestant (Bo Roberts) takes a seat within the wooden frame of some kind of isolation booth. He’s here as part of a winnowing process for American Patriot— a Fox TV spinoff of American Idolin which TV viewers choose who will win a million dollars for being the show’s most patriotic person. Elsewhere on Duncombe’s spare set, three interviewers (Kathryn Sheer, Paul M. Rubenstein and Tom Killam), whom the man cannot see but only hears through speakers, put him at ease before they begin a screening session.
At first our player, sporting a flag T-shirt, is confident he has what it takes to make the show’s final cut. After all, he supports the president, the troops, the war, the camps, the laws — everything that has grown out of the ashes of the World Trade Center. Especially, though, the Patriot Act and its proscriptions on civil rights, although he does pause now and then when asked about the government’s right to pry into reading and Web-surfing habits. Those pauses, however, draw his inquisitors to take a closer look at their would-be millionaire, who, it turns out, is about to lose his job as a restaurant-supply salesman because of a corporate takeover of his company.
By degrees, as the man’s interviewers begin circling his booth like vultures, their conversational drift moves from affable softball questions to Socratic inquiry to a brutal interrogation in which the man continually trips up over the logic of his own answers. After 90 minutes, the sound booth has come to resemble a holding cell, and, sure enough, that’s where the man voluntarily remains, waiting to be taken into custody.
Patriot Act is a very simple piece of political theater but not a simplistic one. Like the would-be contestant, we don’t realize until it’s too late that each of the man’s answers to his interviewers’ questions has clicked a lock on his freedom. The frightening thing is that no matter what replies the man (or we) supplies, the judges are likely to interpret them as unreliable and persuade their prisoner that even if he were innocent of any suspected wrongdoing, it is in the country’s best interests that he go along with whatever the government declares as truth.
There are clearly echoes of the Room 101 chapter from George Orwell’s 1984, and just as Winston Smith’s avuncular interrogator assures him that they will meet in a place where there is no darkness, so do Duncombe’s interviewers claim that in our burgeoning surveillance state, there will come “a time when everything will be recorded.” Patriot Act is not at all a disposable piece of agitprop likely to fade with the legislation for which it is named. It is a peculiar examination of gullible America’s trust in authority that finds us fatally incurious about the matter.
Ably directed by Frederique Michel, the show has problems that stem from the stage architecture imposed by the story. Bo Roberts is confined to his booth, while the other actors must stand outside and talk to him, separated by invisible walls. Michel gives them some Pinteresque choreography (the bouncing of balls, clapping of hands, crossing of legs) that initially hints at menace but before long merely looks like an attempt to compensate for a static stage. Perhaps Duncombe’s characters can’t break the fourth wall dividing them from the audience, but they might do well at least to intrude into Roberts’ space or momentarily draw him into their dark corners — not unlike the government.
If Patriot Act is uniquely topical, Blasted, written by the late British playwright Sarah Kane and presented by the Rude Guerrilla Theater, is the kind of work that begs for hybrid comparisons. The Slave written by Mike Leigh? The Room directed by Amiri Baraka? Suffice to say, this is a political drama in which the brute chaos of the outside world bursts onto the already contested battlefield of personal relationships. Somewhere around Leeds, England, a couple checks into a hotel for an evening of mind torture. Boozy, chain-smoking Ian (Bryan Jennings) has one emphysemic lung, a spotted liver, and prefers calling the house staff “wogs,” “Pakis” and “niggers.” Demure Cate (Hillary Calvert), however, is a sensitive young woman who still lives with her mum. (Guess which one is the cynical journalist.)
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