The Smell Alone Makes it Hard to Hang on to Your Compassion.
Azerotrop’s Building the Wall, by Robert Schenkkan, which opened this weekend at 12th Ave Arts, was a profound statement not just about Trump’s immigration rhetoric but about how our institutions and greedy powerful individuals corrupt the powerless, who with very few choices at their disposal, unwillingly perpetuate evil.
The starkness of the set, a prison interview room, immediately created an atmosphere of eerie discomfort. Although I have no idea what prison interview rooms really look like, set designer Shelby Choo chose a metal table circa 1950, two matching chairs and off in a corner, a “typing table,” a piece of furniture made obsolete by the introduction of computers. To complete the foreboding atmosphere, there were a set of visible glaring fluorescent lights, which suggested that someone was going to be unpleasantly interrogated. Staring at it for only 5 minutes before the show started, was enough to give me the heebie jeebies.
As the lights went on, two characters were in the room about to sit down and talk. Played to perfection by Shermona Mitchell, Gloria, a historian with a strong background in Psychology and Sociology, has come to interview Rick, a man presumably on death row for SOMETHING UNMENTIONABLY HORRENDOUS.
Our first impressions of Rick, played by superbly by Tim Gouran, are very negative indeed. He speaks with a strong red-neck accent, confesses early on that he is from Texas, and delivers the razor-sharp dialogue with complete belligerence. However, Rick is a match for Gloria, as he is witty, articulate, highly intelligent, astute both politically, and psychologically. Just to confuse all our prejudices and assumptions, Mr. Gouran played him as a well-rounded, self-aware character worthy of our compassion.
Although the audience does not know exactly what Rick has done, they are immediately intrigued by what it could have been. As Gloria gets Rick to open up about his childhood, military service history, and work as a prison administrator in a private prison, the dystopian aspects of the plot emerge.
In the play, Trump declared martial law after the Times Sq. terrorist attack, while Rick was head of a private prison processing deportees. In other words, the unrealistic promises of Trump’s rhetoric became a reality. The sheer impracticality of deporting all those deserving of deportation in addition to those undeserving of deportation (to borrow a phrase from Shaw) overwhelmed the meager resources of the prison Rick was administering.
Chaos ensued as the prison became overcrowded, disease-infested and neither the corporation which owned the prison, nor the governmental authorities gave him the wherewithal to deal with the situation effectively. They also used his vulnerabilities to blackmail him. The solution was not pretty, and of course Rick became the fall guy.
Although the pre-show publicity gave me the impression that the play would didactically present the macro-problem, this was not the case. What was presented on stage were two vulnerable individuals, trying to make sense of some incredibly complex interconnected issues: immigration, terrorism, white-backlash, free-will vs determinism, all the time exposing the amorality of corporate greed and corruption.
Author Robert Schenkkan managed to write a script which was intriguing, although it was just one long conversation, about a subject which was rather distasteful, concerning an individual most of us would not want to invite to dinner. However through amusing witty dialogue, insightful compassion and revealing the complexities of the political situation we find ourselves in, I was not only enthralled by the situation being recounted but deeply moved by Rick’s plight.
My only criticism is that I felt that the show should not have been staged with the audience on both sides. Director Desdemona Chiang perhaps should have staged it on a proscenium. It was distracting to be able to see the other side of the audience. The actors at times were forced to speak away from half of the audience, and some lines were lost; however, given the excellent of the acting by Shermona Mitchell and Tim Gouran as well as the sophisticated script, that was minor.
Again Azeotrope Theatre has delivered a scintillating play about a serious subject. Personally, I particularly liked it because it wasn’t just another liberal whine about Trump’s personality and rhetoric, it really showed the underbelly of the corporate powers in this country, and how individuals of every side of the political spectrum are being shafted.
Since it is Pay What You Can, it is more than worth going to, but reserve your tickets as it is likely to be overbooked.
Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan. Azeotrope Theatre, 12th Ave Arts, 1620-12th Ave, (Pine and 12th Ave) Capitol Hill, Seattle. Fri-Sat Thru Dec. 23rd. Mon. Dec. 11 & 18. Thur. Dec. 14, Dec. 21. All performances at 8 PM and Pay What You Can. Reservations strongly recommended .https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3133104. Info: www.azotheatre.org