The Hope Hypothesis: Show Review by Jo Mispel


(Photo by Beowulf Sheenan)

As soon as one sits down and sees the dull, gray bureaucratic office space that is the stage set for The Voyage Theater Company’s new play The Hope Hypothesis, it is hard not to start preempting a story about the dehumanizing realities that biased policies can engender. We already know that this new show, written and directed by Cat Miller, has been billed a dark comedy about this country’s immigration policies, so we expect a somewhat Kafkaesque take on the absurd and defensive systems that cause heartbreak for so many.

Amena, played with brimming sincerity by Soraya Broukhim, is an immigrant from Syria, and currently a Law student here in the United States of America. She is simply trying to attend to the mundane task of updating her paperwork at the glassed window booth of the DMV (though I do not think the fact that it was DMV was made entirely clear at first, perhaps deliberately). The humorless staff member on the other side of the bulletproof glass is all too familiar, a pen-pushing stickler for rules with no time for nuance, or compassion. We can all relate to such frustrating experiences and instantly enjoy actively disliking the teller, who Wesley Zurick portrays with zeal, dripping with repelling arrogance and contempt.

All starts to go terribly wrong however when Amena, under pressure, unveils her unusual birth certificate. The alarm bells are rung and the next thing we know Amena is being interrogated, without recourse, by the DHS. All manner of suspicious legal force comes into play, and the story proceeds to unfold in an infuriating twist of presumptions and looping logic. Exacerbating to Amena who knows her rights. The two FBI officers, played by William Ragsdale and Greg Brostrom, are the usual movie mix of weary realist and simplistic partners. In fact, all the characters, except perhaps Amena and an outside lawyer who we meet later, are somewhat mocking caricatures. Even her boyfriend, who rapidly becomes incapacitated by paranoia when the agents feed him reasons to doubt Amina’s honesty, is a little too comical perhaps. Also a law student, he is nonetheless painted as one suffering the earnest but blinding naivety of his white male privilege. He does not really seem capable of moving beyond his possessive jealousy to see clearly the danger his girlfriend is in. The inconvenience and lack of recourse the situation throws his way are clearly incredulous to him.

The only character who seems motivated to break through his position is the teller’s supervisor, played by Connor Carew. Also painted as an anxious pen pusher, he eventually rises above fears for himself to stand up for what he believes is right. He is the one who will present ‘The Hope Hypothesis” as a possible reason as to why fear rules the day. He will thank his pill-popping rehab experience for all his new agency and regurgitated insight. Resisting defeat even under the vicious pressure of his ruthlessly ambitious co-worker, he gives the story some warmth, lacking elsewhere in this fast-moving Pandora’s box of events.

Talking of boxes, I do want to call out Zoë Hurwitz for the stage set. She has created a simple but very evocative recreation of a typical government office, all muted colors, straight lines, underfunded dumpiness. The set unfolds to reveal a few different spaces, all depressing. The set successfully relays just how dully denuded these spaces are, as if made for automatons, struggling to maintain social services. The office kitchen area is barely functional it is so run down. This is where, ironically, the teller will defend his dramatic action as necessary to protect the ‘American way of life’. And also where the lack of building maintenance will contribute to one of the more shocking twists that come our way.

The play is a bit of an awkward mix of humor and horror. This is always a tricky combination. One does not want to be prodded to laugh when peoples’ lives are at stake, brimming violence is revealed, or tragic accidents unfold. We come to the theater at Sheen center no doubt already sympathizing with the plight of immigrants in this country. We can enjoy a clever mockery of a rigid and fear-based system but maybe we are not ready to swing so quickly to something that then turns somewhat terrifying and definitely distressing. Though maybe that is somewhat the point, that we are also in danger of simplifying and demonizing the systems and cultures that we are still complicit in, while real lives are endangered beyond our proselytizing cubicles. It is too convenient and abstract to laugh at those that we can position so quickly as co-opted lackeys. But not sure if that was the intention. I certainly felt real unease and a bit of whiplash amongst the audience when a prop gun was suddenly brandished aggressively.

The skit cleverly resolves with an almost repeat scene of the bamboozling language net that sets us off initially. This leaves us with a sense that the machine-like heavy-handedness of policy can disempower so swiftly and demoralizingly, and is on repeat.  A depressing takeaway. As much as I left feeling unsure of the play’s mix of comedy and tragedy, I certainly appreciate the clever way a short story like this can encapsulate and reiterate the mechanisms by which we trap ourselves, mentally and socially, and how these muddy the real stories and needs of people, day in and day out. I will definitely keep an eye out to see how Cat Miller’s work evolves.

Now running at The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture until November 15th.

This is a Voyage Theater Company production and a rental at the Sheen Center.

Visit www.sheencenter.org and http://voyagetheatercompany.org/.

 

 

 

 

 

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