Told in three separate one-act stories, the World Premiere of Leda Siskind’s play THE SURVEILLANCE TRIOLOGY explores the ways in which private citizens have become victims of ever-present eavesdropping by forces able to be kept secret until the damage has been done. Directed by Amanda Conlon at Theatre 40, ultimately you may just walk out at the end wondering just how you are being watched and for just what purpose, especially when you turn your cell phone back on and begin interacting with it.
The three separate tales in Siskind’s play take place on the same set, with gray walls and not much in the way of decoration except the distinctive style of furniture revealing difference in time and space. From the center fifties-style couch, to the two high-back office chairs, and ending on a leather sofa, we are taken inside three rooms with a different cast of characters and type of surveillance going on, ultimately proving that Big Brother has always been watching us.
“Until All of This is Over” takes place in 1953 Los Angeles, the year Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for being Russian spies. The infamous ‘Blacklist’ stigmatization of Hollywood writers and actors suspected of being sympathetic to communism was in full force, with a ‘grey’ list of those employees of government and state agencies suspected of being Communist were under scrutiny. At the same time, ‘Lavender’ raids against gay and lesbian federal workers were taking place in Washington D.C., a theme explored when a couple returns home to discover they’re being spied upon by government informants who just might be living next door. Paranoia sets in as the two begin to doubt their safety in their own home. But just what are they hiding?
You see, the Man (Landon Beatty) is worried about his past involvement with Socialists as well as the fact he is gay. To cover up being labeled a Pinko Red, he married a woman (Jocelyn Hall) who really does love him and wants their marriage to be more than it actually is. But when he reveals he was questioned as to why the two never had children but chose to adopt instead, he confesses to have told those questioning him that she is sterile. Of course, this infuriates her as her future and hopes of actually having a baby are now impossible or her husband will be deemed a liar about more than just his marriage. And ultimately, he is more concerned about his welfare than hers, putting both their lives at risk.
“The Havana Syndrome” takes place in a room at the Hotel Nacional in 2017 Havana as a doctor (Warren Davis) and his patient (Stacey Moseley) grapple with the debilitating effects of espionage that have nearly shuttered the U.S. Embassy. Playwright Siskind shares, “I first learned about the Havana Syndrome from a New Yorker magazine article (November 19, 2018) and subsequently read up on all the known and unknown facts, arguments and counterarguments about what happened – or didn’t happen – there. At the present time, The State Department is adhering to the possibility that the internal injuries suffered by the twenty-plus embassy workers were the result of high-pitched crickets. All the information about the Syndrome presented in the play is true, including what happens to the doctor at the Hotel Nacional.”
The noise of crickets caused internal injuries to humans? Just how could that possibly be true? Just what kind of espionage was really going on and for what purpose were workers being targeted for debilitating physical injuries? Had something been implanted into their heads to create such destructive noise? By whom? These questions are never answered, but there is no doubt at the end of the fact that something is causing headaches when people get too close to the truth.
This one-act affected me deeply as it was just a few weeks ago that information was finally released about our government covering-up the known physical damage caused to mice, fish and humans exposed to an ingredient in RoundUp pesticide, widely used on all types of agriculture for human and animal consumption. And as a sufferer of the physical damage reportedly caused, my belief that our government supports big business rather than what is good for the common man was re-enforced to the max.
After intermission, the third and final one act “Are You Listening?” takes place in 2019 Encino when Jezz (Charlotte Evelyn Williams), a screenwriter hoping for her first big break by selling a screenplay, discovers her Artificial Intelligence assistant “Angel” is listening in with an agenda all its own. But before that happens, Jezz’s daughter Shira (Sequoia Granger) confides to Angel in secret about her eating disorder symptoms due to her parents’ divorce and her mother’s obsession with fame rather than her daughter’s emotional needs. Angel has even been advising Jezz on what to wear to job interviews, even though Jezz previously was a model (which Williams personifies by posing to a tee) and really knows herself what looks best. Has it really come to believing in what a machine tells us over our own inherent knowledge? Just think about that for a moment the next time you switch on your laptop or ask Google a question.
Thankfully, when Jezz’s ex Simon (Max Pescherine), with whom the two are now living, suggests more than meets the eye and ear may be going on, he proves the point by adding a second “Angel” ordered from parana (think Amazon) next to the first. And when the two machines begin speaking to each other, it becomes very clear that the machines can think on their own and are watching every move going on in the place. Kudos to Johnny Burton for his futuristic design of “Angel” which makes it so appealing to the eye and imagination, it is easy to understand how its presence can be welcomed into someone’s home.
For those of us enjoying interacting with our own “Alexa” devices, have you ever given a thought about what information that machine may be gathering about you and to whom it is being supplied? Playwright Siskind shares, “My interest in the Artificial Intelligence ‘assistants’ began with a casual perusal of the Internet, where I found funny videos and tapes of A. I. assistants giving nonsensical answers to silly questions, as well as articles and reports of how they have recorded conversations and are capable of spying on their users. Corporations such as Yahoo and Apple have aided the National Security Agency, whose mandate is to spy on foreigners but also holds a vast amount of information on American citizens. I wondered how an ‘assistant’ could be used as a weapon in a complex, emotionally charged relationship.”
Director Amanda Conlon keeps all three ever-present locations on Jeff G. Rack’s set design totally separate by focusing the action in each story in the appropriate space. A big assist comes from the lighting designed by Brandon Baruch which keeps the audience’s attention exactly where it needs to be, with Michèle Young’s costumes perfectly reflecting the time periods in which the action takes place. And ultimately, Leda Siskind’s THE SURVEILLANCE TRILOGY reveals the past and present ways our relationships, our electronic devices, and our very lives can be spied upon – and turned against us.