"Is it a play" review: a transcription becomes an enthralling thriller

Running out of grocery lists, raw transcripts can be the most boring things ever written. With their stops, hesitations and fuzzy logic...


Running out of grocery lists, raw transcripts can be the most boring things ever written. With their stops, hesitations and fuzzy logic dust, they ask to be carefully stored before use and discarded quickly after.

Nonetheless, a 65-minute text transcript has now become the basis for one of Broadway’s most thrilling thrillers. “Is it a room, Which opened Monday at the Lyceum Theater, transforms the ums and the weird stutters and non-sequences of recorded speech into astonishing – and surprisingly emotional – theater.

How does mind-numbing banality turn into thrilling excitement? In “Is this a room?” ” the transcription is just the starting point. More striking is the way the production, conceived and directed by Tina Satter, views the document through an expressionist lens, allowing Emily Davis, in a heartbreaking performance, to transform words into windows to a world of inner terror.

Davis plays the ironically (but quite real) name Reality Winner, who on June 3, 2017, returning from Saturday chores, finds FBI men waiting outside the sparsely furnished house she rents in Augusta, in Georgia. They came, one of them says, “about, uh, possible mismanagement of classified information.”

“Oh my God,” she replies. “OK.”

At first, you believe her when she insists that she has “no idea” what the agents are referring to. In cropped denim shorts, a white button-down shirt and yellow tops that perfectly mimics what Winner was wearing that day – the costumes are from Enver Chakartash – she looks like a teenage girl. She often looks that way too, with a heated childbirth and arrogant speech of excuse-my-existence.

But she is 25, owns three guns and, as she later confirms, has top-secret clearance from a local military contractor, where she works as a linguist specializing in Farsi, Dari and Pashto.

If these South Asian and Central Asian languages ​​make you think that Winner mishandled documents on the war in Afghanistan, it is a red herring – or rather a pink one; Wherever the FBI transcript writes information as sensitive, as is the case when the specific subject of the leak is discussed, the stage lights flash pink for a moment. A spooky Law & Order style thunk can shake you from your seat as well.

Stunning lighting (by Thomas Dunn) and sound (by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada) are just two weapons in Satter’s arsenal of disorienting effects. Aim, as she recently told the New York Times, to imagine what “Reality feels second by second”, it avoids naturalism, which would mask these feelings – there is hardly a whole – in favor of an almost sculptural abstraction, increasing and decreasing the tension by the setting in shape and mass of bodies in space.

As the interview progresses and CrossFit enthusiast Winner realizes she’s been caught up in an action she can barely justify even for herself, we watch her break down muscle by muscle. His hands twist and collapse, his hips give way and finally his torso falls perpendicular to the floor so that his tears flow as if they were coming out of a leaky shower head.

It’s hard not to cry with her, especially when “Is This a Room”, named after a strange question asked by one of the agents, brings you there without any gadgets. He does not present Winner as a leftist brand or a noble whistleblower, but as an infuriating and tired office jockey.

Agents are not demonized either. Pete Simpson as the smiley, Will Cobbs as the suspicious, and Becca Blackwell as the hilariously oblivious “unknown man”, all excel at mitigating their implied threat with varieties of recklessness. Yet their good-naturedness and good old chivalry barely mask their own nervousness; they are just as lost in their absurd scenario as Winner is in his, whether they huddle in a pack as if to get up or face him chatting.

Yet has the gossip ever seemed so important? Although at least half of the transcript finds the aimless men – almost flirtatiously – chatting with Winner about their own CrossFit experiences and the pets they’ve known, ultimately they can’t help but reveal a subtext too deep and cold for words. This subtext is about gender, and part of the fear you feel for Winner comes from the uneven distribution of the sexes. She feels it too: when she offers the information that her dog and her cat, both female, “don’t like men,” she adds, in a joke that instantly curls: “Start seeing a woman. trend here. “

Indeed. Winner, who later admitted his guilt in a plea bargain, was the first person convicted under the Espionage Act after President Trump cracked down on the leaks when he took office. According to a Times report, his was the longest sentence – over five years – “ever imposed by a federal court for unauthorized disclosure of government information to the media.” And although she got an early release in june for “exemplary behavior”, he is still prohibited from making public statements or appearances.

Plays based on transcriptions appear to face a similar ban, their verbatim nature acting as a stark check on editorial indulgence. (Another piece based on the transcription, “Dana H.”, by Lucas Hnath, opens next week at the Lyceum, where it will work alternately with “Is This a Room. However, in practice, such works are sometimes richer than fiction, if not in words, then in implication.

For me, the implications of “Is This a Room” are clear. The documents Winner leaked to a publication called The Intercept contained evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 elections, an interference that President Trump has struggled to deny. Even though his actions are bad, I find it hard not to make the connection between his excessive punishment and Mr. Trump’s many others. attempts to shame and silence women, whether Stormy Daniels, E. Jean Carroll Where Christine blasey ford.

Far from attenuating the power of the room, this retreat deepens it; it is a story that cannot be spoiled. Even if you saw “Is This a Room” when Satter’s company, Half Straddle, premiered it Off Off Broadway at the Kitchen in January 2019, or the Vineyard Theater later that year, its drama wouldn’t be diminished by now.

This is because, as far as it is a mystery, the question is not what Winner did but what it did to him. “Is This a Room” asks if it is possible to live in a lawless world without becoming lawless ourselves. Is there a place for that? The answer, I’m afraid, is not in the transcript.

Is it a room

Until January 16 at the Lyceum Theater, Manhattan; thelyceumplays.com. Duration: 1 hour 5 minutes.

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Newsrust - US Top News: "Is it a play" review: a transcription becomes an enthralling thriller
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