REVIEW: Is This A Room… Drama, Meet Reality

My childhood nightmares usually involved school. Either I discovered that I had mysteriously arrived stark naked, or that I’d failed to prepare for an exam that was imminent. I know now that these themes are common—most of my friends had similar dreams. 

But what are the comparably paradigmatic nightmares for adults? I’m willing to wager that—especially in the years following 9/11 and the general uptick in anti-terrorism vigilance—one powerful recurring scenario involves a surprise interrogation by law enforcement that’s likely to end badly. 

Is This A Room, devised by Tina Satter and Half Straddle, pushes that last button, and takes it even further—for this is not fiction, but rather a staged version of an actual FBI transcript. 

In June 2017, a former American intelligence specialist with the stranger-than-fiction name of Reality Winner (yes, truly) was questioned and ultimately charged with disseminating classified material from a government agency. It ended badly for real: currently, Winner is serving out a five year prison sentence. (Did I mention that she was very vocally and publicly a critic of Trump?)

What we see here, in Satter’s brilliant staging, is the questioning that begins immediately after a group of FBI agents arrive at Winner’s door. It is simultaneously utterly ordinary, and the stuff of nightmares. Four actors—Becca Blackwell, Frank Boyd, Emily C. Davis, and T.L. Thompson—seem to embody these characters completely, rather than act them. Since this is all, as it were, on the record, we get not only their words, but also every interruption, pause, self-correction, and more… all delivered with astonishing skill. Davis, playing Winner herself, is particularly stunning. 

In all, Is This A Room is a nerve-shattering, profound, compelling 70 minutes that will likely burn on in your memory long after the lights on stage go out. 

But—and I say this as someone who is deeply sympathetic to Winner’s liberal politics—Is This A Room for me raises the same troubling questions I see in other works of the evolving genre now called “documentary theater”—notably, how do we determine the dividing line between those two terms?

Remember, this is described as a verbatim transcription—and I have no reason to question that. But a theater piece is by its very nature interpretive and manipulative. Whatever the text source, it also involves editing, staging, design work, and nuances of acting—all of which markedly inflect our reactions to the situation. 

One particularly effective example here, among many—a soundscape that tellingly fills the stage with nervous-making static, and even more nail-bitingly cuts out at moments to underscore the redacted sections. 

Also, Satter’s staging presents a threatening power dynamic which inflects virtually every moment. Winner is surrounded by what appears to be a phalanx of men (complicating this is that two of the actors identify as trans or gender-neutral, but the image presented here suggests male dominance), who are often uncomfortably close to Winner. 

Since Davis is so marvelously compelling and artless in the central, her seeming naïveté and youthful fragility instantly puts us on her side. In a touch that even David Belasco might have thought excessive, her biggest concern if she’s hauled off to jail is what might happen to the dog and cat she’s fostering. 

Again, I assume that the words, at least, are straight from the transcript. But how we perceive it is certainly part of the director, designers, and actors’ art. The takeaway here for many will be one of totalitarian horror. But I can’t help but wonder if the actual reality was less, well, theatrical… if that reality would also show Winner in a less sympathetic light.

Maybe none of this will matter to you. While I was watching Is This A Room, it didn’t matter much to me—the piece had me in its thrall. 

But there’s an after-life to theater, and I’m less certain how I feel when the line between documentary and drama is so blurred as to all but disappear.  

Is This A Room: Reality Winner plays through September 15th at the Annenberg Center. For more information, visit the FringeArts website

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