The world premiere of Leda Siskind’s thought provoking, topical The Surveillance Trilogy is so perfectly timed – opening the same week that Edward Snowden’s book Permanent Record has been published and the Trump administration is mired in an alleged whistleblower scandal – that one of three things must have happened:
1) Trilogy’s publicist is a marketing mastermind who contrived for Snowden to reappear on the world stage and for the Inspector General/Director of National Intelligence/Trump whistleblower brouhaha the same week this play opened, as publicity stunts for Trilogy;
2) The playwright is a theatrical Nostradamus with the gift of prophecy;
3) The insightful Ms. Siskind has her finger on the pulse of our times.
Whatever your answer is (and because you are reading this online I KNOW what you are thinking – thanks to this computer’s ability to see you and its facial recognition app, LOL!), The Surveillance Trilogy is more than preternaturally topical. In fact, the first of the play’s three short dramas takes place in 1953, during the height of the Reds-under-the-beds hysteria, the year that the so-called “atomic spies,” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were electrocuted – the only civilians executed during the Cold War.
In Until All of this is Over Landon Beatty plays an unnamed Man who is not only a closeted gay person, but at one time, also a card carrying member of the Communist Party USA. He met his beard, played by Jocelyn Hall (who alternates in the role starting Oct. 10 with Suzanne Slade), at what they call “socialist summer camp.” The unnamed Woman romantically yearns for the Man, although she’s aware of this school teacher’s sexual preference, which precludes sexual intimacy.
But despite their masquerade marriage the school board investigates the Man, who is in double jeopardy – not only from the Red Scare, but the “Lavender Scare,” which likewise demonized and persecuted gays and other “sex perverts.” (See the excellent new doc “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” which was just released – coincidentally or did Trilogy’s genius promoter also time this just right, too? LOL!) The woman, a comrade (although she lusts for more), tries to protect her husband from the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, but they live in constant daily fear of surveillance and slip ups – such as their subscription copy of the People’s World newspaper being tossed on their lawn by a blithe delivery boy on his paper route.
The Havana Syndrome is set in the Cuban capital in 2017 at a time when some sort of disabling illness befell 20-plus U.S. diplomatic staffers, following the Obama administration’s opening of relations with the communistic Caribbean island. A cane wielding Woman (Stacey Moseley) goes to Havana’s Hotel Nacional to meet with a Man (Warren Davis), who appears to be a doctor working for the CIA assigned to debrief and chronicle the unnamed librarian and her baffling case. What ensues is a well dramatized clash of wills that raises important questions.
Who is behind this weird illness? High frequency crickets? Russians and a hardline faction of Cubans or rightwing elements in U.S. intelligence hell-bent on scuttling the Obama era rapprochement with a still socialist-oriented Cuba? An intermission follows the performance of the first two plays.
Are You Listening? the final third of the Trilogy, brings the subject of surveillance right up to the present day. Jezz (Charlotte Evelyn Williams) is an aspiring African American screenwriter and mother of Shira (Sequoia Granger), a bratty bi-racial adolescent. Due to conflicts with Jezz’s (as in Jezebel?) current husband and soon-to-be ex, Mike, mother and daughter have moved back in with Caucasian Simon (Max Pescherine), an IT worker and Jezz’s former husband and Shira’s father.
There, they are reliant on a not-too-futuristic “Alexa” form of Artificial Intelligence, “Angel,” who it seems is collecting, shall we say, a bit too much information on the humans. Is Angel working for the not too angelic National Security Agency – and is Mike in cahoots with the NSA? Hmm, inquiring minds want to know…
Siskind told me she was a “Red Diaper Baby” and as the April conference at the San Francisco Institute of Art reminded people, many blacklisted leftists were hounded by the FBI and fled surveillance and persecution to live overseas at Mexico and elsewhere. So the children of Communist Party members (or former members) are exquisitely aware of the plague of being surveilled and oppressed for using their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Of course, in capitalist America, people have freedom of speech – until they express unpopular opinions in public (and even in private!), and then they find out how much liberty and rights they really have in the “land of the free!”
Siskind not only expresses these topical points but also expertly interweaves them into extremely complex relationships. The personal, indeed, is political. Trilogy is well-acted and directed by Amanda Conlon and is highly recommended for thoughtful theatergoers who cherish food for thought and love serious, intelligent drama.