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#TheRevolution — InterAct Theatre at the Drake

revolution -- interiorKristoffer Diaz has an active, agile mind.

In his play “#TheRevolution,” he perceives much about human nature, mob rule, and the potential reach of social media. “#TheRevolution” is full of ideas. Good ones. Smart ones. Thoughtful ones. Diaz dazzles you with all he understands and how clearly he understands it. “#TheRevolution” constantly provokes thought and has a satirical bite. Diaz recognizes much in today’s politics — perhaps eternity’s politics — and culture worth lampooning. I enjoyed hearing his observations and appreciated his obvious sense of what would happen if populist fantasy was allowed to take hold in the form of a revolution. His play underscored a lot that kept me from being an adherent or fan of much that happened in the late 1960’s. Diaz is a conservative in hipster’s clothing.

The scope and precision of thought he reveals in “#TheRevolution” is daunting, so much so it makes it difficult to cope with how sloppily and incompletely his play is written. The logic Diaz shows as a philosopher and political observer does not extend to his foray into play construction. Seth Rozin’s production of “#TheRevolution,” a world premiere to inaugurate InterAct’s new home at the Drake, is about as good as it can get, keeping Diaz’s notions lively as boasting an excellent performance by Mary Tuomanen, but Diaz has given Rozin a piece to hear more than a piece to watch. Intellect will take “#TheRevolution” only so far. Dramatically, it mirrors many contemporary plays, that depend on isolated high points and sporadic inspiration to justify their existence. “The Language Archive” at Bristol Riverside Theatre and “Exit Strategy” at Philadelphia Theatre Company are in the same literary boat. Their playwrights have some interesting observations and ideas, but they don’t manage to coalesce them into a cogent, consistent play. It’s a problem, one theaters will have to solve by demanding more from new works. Ideas aren’t enough. Flashy or temperamental scenes built on one whimsical joke isn’t going to cut it. Kristoffer Diaz has more interesting to say, and is sharper about finding topics to explore than “Language Archives’s” Julia Cho or “Exit Strategy’s” Ike Holter, but his play is the most scattered and least formed. Rozin’s positive production of it can’t hide its legion of flaws any more than Adam Immerwahr’s magnificent cast can obscure the shallowness of “The Language Archive” or Kip Fagan can overcome the naïve simplistic goop in “Exit Strategy.” “Simplistic” the word for all of these plays. The stop at the idea or the loopy bit of shtick. Diaz has the advantage of being a more gifted commentator and a deeper, more substantial thinker, but his play loses it way the most and tires you out the fastest. Unless you’re taken by its concepts, which at least occupy your brain with mental considerations while you mildly attend to the repetitive and increasing implausible nonsense on stage.

There’s the crux of the matter. For all Diaz perceives cannily about the world and its human inhabitants, and for all he seems to have a sense of history and its repercussions — Catch Cho or Holter having even a hint of that. — his play descends to twaddle. He covers his philosophical bases, but he doesn’t work out the logistics of his play. He forces you to ask essential questions that should be covered by information provided in the script. For instance, in a world in chaos, how does water get pumped or purified? Who is watching the cash flow and infrastructure of the seven continents, all allegedly affected by the revolution Diaz posits? Why is amazing that one character knows where to get a cup of coffee? With Starbuck’s type-printing and a cardboard protective sleeve keeping fingers from being burned.

Deep in ideas, Diaz is spotty in details. He is content to present a situation limited to the ramifications he can handle, but he doesn’t account for or address considerations that logically arise and negate much of what he chooses to show us in the scenes we see. He perceives “what would happen if….” but he doesn’t flesh out his perceptions. Instead, he stays with simple basics, allowing scenes to be talkative and offbeat but without foundation or purpose beyond letting one or another character mouth off, much of the time justifying egregious actions in a lame despicable way. Diaz knows enough to question what would happen if someone managed to foment a worldwide revolution and the imagination to see how such an event might go quickly awry, but his writing aims for the zany, superficial, and convenient, a big but empty effect, rather than getting to the heart of the matter and staggering us with his knowledge in a way that disturbs our complacent peace and allows us respond to his wisdom and his view of the horror that wisdom tells him his characters would bring to the world if they were really to take charge.

“#TheRevolution” is too content to remain at the comic fantasy level, a funny, even wacky, look at what might occur if someone succeeded in becoming the dominant leader of the world. Someone with Diaz’s understanding must deliver more. He has been too easy on himself. “#TheRevolution,” as it stands, has the mere rudiments of a play. It’s a child’s diatribe concealing a smart, pensive man’s shrewd observations. Diaz should be ashamed of the slapdash way in which he let his astute ideas trickle. He squanders his intellect, and he wastes our time. Rozin, Tuomanen, Brett Ashley Robinson, and Anita Holland work hard to keep “#TheRevolution” as entertaining as possible, but Diaz defeats them as he sabotages himself by tossing off broad, madcap or cheaply melodramatic scenes when he has material that can really go for the throat. Satire is implied — or perhaps inferred by me — but Diaz mitigates it by putting silly ahead of salient in crafting his comedy. That choice renders “#TheRevolution” nor fish or fowl. It delivers laughs, but they’re stagy and begged for while Diaz and that agile mind should strive for more.

The biggest disappointment for me is Diaz is capable of addressing an issue — populism — that sparks my interest and absorbs my thoughts.

I was a teenager in the late ’60s. I noticed how the world changed when JFK was supplanted with LBJ. I watched the Beach Boys and Four Seasons lose ground to the Beatles and other groups and wondered why one couldn’t enjoy both, as I did, rather than choose between them. I saw standards drop in terms of benchmarks and behaviors that were acceptable. While I was glad to see fake Puritanism go, I was nervous about an absence of any limit or tactful practice.

Everything in the late ’60s was labelled a ripoff. Big business and corrupt politicians were said to be the bane of everything. Fairness became a matter of not competing to win. All was more complex than I am making it, but the ’60s begin the us-them, absolute or nothing, my-comfort-supersedes-your opinion mentality that has come to a head today and leaves us with the mediocre and universally unacceptable as a choice for the President of the United States. (I am not kidding when I say I’m writing in Winston Churchill. Why should I vote for someone I wouldn’t waste good urine on if I saw them on fire?)

The ’60s affected me in an odd way. I was the one who wasn’t going along with the trend. Oh, I liked the idea of less hypocrisy and expanded freedom. I loathed the idea that compromise and middle ground were mocked by people who insisted there’s only one direction to take and one thing to do. I was especially wary of anyone who spoke of revolution, especially if they spoke about it seriously and believed it could be fomented.

Most of the people who spouted such ideas were jokes. No one would want what they proffered, and no one knew what that was.

I have the same reaction when I hear talk of revolution today. The talk doesn’t come from folks of the stature of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. It comes from malcontents, usually simplistic, superficial malcontents who want everything to fit some romantic notion that would not be able to encompass the reality of the world and its true diversity.

They want perfection that they define, and they want chaos. I would rather live my one life unconcerned and doing things that delight and please me while having opinions about bigger topics and not meddling much in them.

The reasons revolutionaries dismay me is the history of revolutions, especially since I know there isn’t a revolution, except possibly the American, that would have failed to have branded me an enemy and killed me. From my lack of interest in revolutionary ideas if from nothing else, such as being gay, Jewish, and nearsighted.

I quote a friend these days by saying Donald Trump is the dog that caught the car. Now that he has the bumper between his jaws, what does he do with it?

I feel the same about revolutionaries. What would they do if they succeeded, if they indeed caught the car?

In most cases, they kill. They define enemies and they slaughter them in the name of progress and justice. The American Revolution is a grand exception, and its Continental Congress contained delegates who wanted to execute Tories, abscond their property, and subject them to ridicule and penury.

There’s the leaders we want. Sanctimonious sadists.

The French Revolution is more like the model most newly in charge follow. It is of the paradigm I describe above — vindictive, murderous, snide, chaotic. The Arab Spring the year Tunisia and Egypt expelled dictators and attempted democracy is another case in point. Who would want that? Why Lenin or the Czar? Why not Kerensky? Why the Ayatollah or the Shah? Why not a middle way, a Bill Clinton-Tony Blair third way? Where is Winston Churchill when we need him?

Kristoffer Diaz looks to be as aware of the potential folly of revolutions as I have become. In “#The Revolution,” he hints at repercussions of the French, Communist, and Chinese Revolutions of 1789, 1917, and 1949. He goes further to have his new leader/dictator suggest plans that sound like the post-Mao Cultural Revolution. Diaz seems to know his onions, and one quality of onions is they have a propensity to stink. Diaz is aware a revolution with no organization, with laws by fiat, with summary death to the resistant or uncooperative, and with self-righteous claims to power is a horror. And a farce. Diaz sees the comedy is unprepared, partisan takeover, and it looks as he is also ready to depict the grief and anguish totalitarian regimes cause.

That serious view never emerges in “#The Revolution.” Comedy prevails, and although the statements of the prime revolutionaries, unnamed leaders called The Revolution and the Witness, take on a satirical cast in their defensiveness, naivety, and fierceness, Diaz doesn’t know how to evolve that comedy into something substantial.

We see the initial joy and gradual decline of both glee and revolutionary zeal in Diaz’s characters. We don’t see their incompetence, their ugliness, and their overall stupidity.

Diaz is perceptive and cynical, but he doesn’t go for the throat, not even as much as Charlie Chaplin does in “The Great Dictator” or Tom Stoppard does in “Night and Day.” Diaz just asks, “Wouldn’t it be funny if, via social media, the revolution radicals talk about fomenting came to be, and wouldn’t it be funnier if it was started and run by two women no one ever heard of?”

These are good solid premises. Diaz even has cunning commentary about social media and its potential power in the mix. But he doesn’t go past those premises in any significant way. “#TheRevolution” maintains the same humorous tone and jauntiness throughout.

Oh, there are scenes that pretend to poignancy. Brett Ashley Robinson, as the Revolution begins to tire of her responsibility and inability to control all she unleased, and Mary Tuomanen has a remarkable monologue in which she reveals her character’s own shallowness and ineptitude in a brilliant staged passage that involves a video camera and a screen, more about which I’ll say anon. But “#TheRevolution” is mostly content with all it can conjure with a big taste, an outrageous statement, a fit of temper, and superficial ragging and raging. You hear Diaz’s fine mind whirring behind the dialogue, but the scope of that mind never makes it to the stage.

Showy, ostentatious sequences do. And there’s little Seth Rozin can do to prevent this. He’s stuck making the most out of the incomplete maunderings he’s given. It’s to Rozin’s credit, “#The Revolution” holds your attention as long as it does.

All kinds of politics come to the fore in Diaz’s play. You see a dictator’s caprice when The Revolution shoots a cute, harmless dancer just to show no one is safe from her whimsical power. You see sexual power when a newcomer, The Muscle, makes it obvious she intends to come between the Lesbian link shared by The Revolution and The Witness. Diaz attempts variety. He just supplies it gratuitously, so it has no effect, literary or dramatic.

I thought Diaz was going to take a big snipe at social media. The Revolution gains her fame and her allure when The Witness, with passion or compassion, videos her killing someone on a typical city street for no reason. The Revolution simply says the guy was an “asshole,” someone being an “asshole” becoming her rationale for killing anyone she chooses and encouraging others to do the same.

You see the insanity the revolution is built upon. It spread and The Revolution becomes a worldwide dictator when The Witness makes a technical error and broadcasts her footage of the original, unprovoked murder for all mankind with mobile devices to see.

Yep, that premise is far-fetched, but you’re willing to accept it when you think “#TheRevolution” has the makings of a sharp comedy that lampoons social messaging, revolution, and dictatorship. Diaz never explains how The Revolution keeps control, maintains, decides who lives or dies, and finds obedience using only mobile phone transmissions.

What if Bill Gates or the folks at Apple, or T-Mobile for that matter, decide she’s a kook and shut her off, if only to restore order.

You don’t see how anyone can live in The Revolution’s newly dawned world. Everyone is too busy killing anyone he or she decides is an asshole. There’s no discussion or right and wrong, of good and bad policy. Of course, being a 21st century playwright, Diaz disparages the rich, the corporate, the financial, and the politically incorrect, but he doesn’t say who he considers the good guys, what their tenets are, and how to inculcate their plan voluntarily through a movement than doesn’t just cover The Revolution’s neighborhood or hometown but is embraced by the world.

Diaz never addresses what is happening with farms and food sources or how anything is getting to market, assuming there is a market and anyone has a viable currency to spend at it. Revolutionaries always leave out the practicalities of feeding a world in their romances. Necessities are never neat or pretty, are they?

So much goes unanswered and unexplored, what’s shown makes little sense and tends to cover the same ground over and over. “#TheRevolution” quickly goes from being provocative to tedious. If Diaz is serious about it being a play, he’d better start rewriting and soon.

With The Revolution and The Witness obvious assholes themselves, to whom does one turn for sanity, competence, and results?

Seth Rozin keeps all as breezy and as comic as he can. If “#TheRevolution” is a mess, it can at least be entertaining.

Brett Ashley Robinson goes through all of the dictatorial stages as The Revolution and becomes more weary and crestfallen as she does so. An ecstatic smile, jaunty dance, and unbridled enthusiasm are the hallmarks of her first message to her people. Soon she’ll make some terse statements about subjects who don’t follow directions. Later, she’ll have more rules and laws, some self-serving and unfair. Later yet, her short skirt and sweater will be replaced by an always-worn ankle-length overcoat, a la Stalin and other dictators. Soon, leading will be no fun to her, especially when Diaz adds the sentimental touch of having The Witness, who we learn is named Veronica, being her whole life. Love for and with Veronica is The Revolution’s real craving, and Diaz puts up contrived artificial barriers to keep The Revolution and Veronica from being together.

Mary Tuomanen actually provides some texture as Veronica. She is the first to show concern about the responsibility of leading the world and doubt about her or The Revolution’s aptitude for fulfilling that duty. She also wonders out loud why she didn’t call the police when she saw The Revolution murdering someone in cold blood for the pleasure of it. Veronica comes back to reality firmly and hard, and Tuomanen conveys that well.

She is especially effective in a long speech that explains the revolutions its unusual beginning, and her place in it.

This is as interesting technically as it is dramatically. Tuomanen delivers it into a camera that is placed on a table in front of her as she sits, far upstage left in quarter profile. Above where she sits, you see the recording Veronica is making, and on that, because she’s facing and speaking to the camera, Tuomanen appears full-face.

The contrast between the profile shot you see before you, and the recording picture you seee in black-and-white on the screen is amazing. You don’t where to look. Tuomanen’s Veronica is pouring her story into this recorder. It is interesting and emotional in ways no other scene in Diaz’s play comes near being. Looking at her profile, Tuomanen acting in character on stage in the position the character chooses, the experience is aural. You key into what Veronica is saying. I’m almost sad to report the better and more affecting way to take the speech in is by looking at the colorless image on the screen. In place of color, you see a wealth of facial expressions and other nuances your naked eye doesn’t pick up as finely as the camera can. There’s more depth, more texture to Veronica’s speech as seen second-hand, transmitted electronically to a screen.

There’s something disconcerting about having to admit something recorded in more authentic, more alive, and more poignant than pure live action in the theater.

Yet, that’s the case, and Tuomanen, in person and on screen, does wonders with this speech.

Anita Holland does a fine job as one who wants her piece of both the revolution and The Revolution. She cuts as commanding figure as The Muscle, who volunteers to enforce the dictatorial mandates The Revolution hands down/

The Muscle helps show what the revolution is a folly and why, in a time and place of mayhem, no one and no institution is safe.

Stephanie N. Walters gets under your skin as a perky teen who only wants to please but needs directions to know how to do that, but the irritating Aurora is another of Diaz’s satirical jokes. She represents Millennials who think any desire they have must be granted and who yearn for approval to the extent they’ll do anything you request to get it. Including killing someone.

Richard Chan is not called on for much, but when he has the chance, he contributes well to Rozin’s production. Chan is a good dancer whose character does deserve his fate. He’s also quick with a pistol when he called on to protect The Muscle from The Revolution. Rozin stages the gun scene to which I’m referring well. It provides one of “#TheRevolution’s” genuinely suspenseful moments.

Colin McIlvaine’s stark, open set is leavened a bit by a dingy coffee shop set-up in one corner. McIlvaine is quite clever in what he plots when The Revolution’s regime begins to fall apart, and it looks as if Veronica is going to defect. Katherine Fritz, Peter Whinnery, and Christopher Colucci do good work on costumes, lighting, and sound.

“#TheRevolution” runs through Sunday, February 14, produced by InterAct Theatre at the Drake, 1512 Spruce Street — Walk halfway down S. Hicks Street towards Pine to access the entrance — in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from$38 to $34 and can be obtained by calling 215-568-8079 or by visiting www.interacttheatre.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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