Purchase written by Ian W. Hill
The Strategist, or:
The Woman of Some Virtue, or:
Before You Ever Heard of It by Ian W. Hill & Berit Johnson
Final performances, November 23, 2013
The Brick Theater, 575 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, USA
It’s a special pathology of human thought that we believe that the younger, since they haven’t seen what we’ve seen, can’t envision the future like we do — though this is really because they have already been born into our future, and it’s not what we can recognize.
The generational chasm is accentuated in Purchase, which leaps us into an eventual future America and thus displaces every viewer from their best hopes to their worst expectations.
We’re at a fashionable home in a volatile neighborhood in a high-tech Dirty War-style United States extrapolated from the surveillance culture and rule of martial law set in motion by our own time’s current and previous presidents. Aristocrat, concert pianist and longtime liberal activist Lady Stefanie Anderssen, played by Alyssa Simon, is visited by young junta operative Colonel Simonette Allyson, played by Anna Stefanic, in what seems at first to be an intimidating interrogation. The mirroring and exchange of names, of course, signals us not to rely on any of our assumptions, and Hill’s script and the masterful tension and caution of each actor’s performance puts us unnervingly and inescapably in a social habitat in which every word is watched and every meaning is weighed, always with well-being and life in the balance.
Lady Stefanie has funded “approved” nonprofits that oppose the government, though Colonel Simonette suspects the money has gone astray to insurgents, with or without Stefanie’s knowledge. But in their psychological fencing it comes out that the Colonel may want to know so that she can enlist the Lady’s aide for a rebel faction of the military itself. In a society where any neighbor can be a secret enemy, we can all hope that an enemy might be a secret friend. There is no centering certainty, only shifting perceptual ground, which is the true triumph of any totalitarian system, more than any direct imposed authority.
It’s also the essence of small, undetectable but collectively inevitable steps to tyranny, and Hill envisions an ingeniously, chillingly plausible end result. He also extrapolates a speech-pattern, mostly employed by the Colonel, that is instantly disorienting yet sharply recognizable from current tendencies in popular address; she corners Stefanie with an abbreviated nextspeak somewhere between texting shorthand and phone-menu technobabble, which throws its listeners off while also being both starkly direct and, in its austerity, spurring a proliferation of meanings like poetry or the coded patois of many historical undergrounds.
The women have no absolute way of knowing if they can trust each other, and what becomes their mutual interrogation — and at times unlikely bonding — reveals in Hill the uncommon understanding that atrocity is not grand, it’s intimate; oppressed and oppressor, and the disappeared and the spared, are linked much more closely, in antagonism, in guilt, than most of us are comfortable exploring.
Simon shows an astounding palette of emotional reserve and submerged terror and strategic response and tenuous tenderness and smoldering arrogance as the aggrieved refugee from a time in history we think we know, and Stefanic creates in the Colonel a devastating portrait of the disciplined, conflicted, disillusioned, dutiful product of the future we think we fear, very aware of her limited options but in touch with unsuppressibly noble instincts; a performance, and a role, of towering empathetic imagination from Stefanic and Hill.
As the revolution both women seem to want begins, the Colonel despairs at the breakdown of order in the way it flares up while the humanist Lady seems to exult in the bloody uprising; they represent different strains within the forces of change, and there are irreconcilable contradictions between Stefanie’s desire for abrupt overthrow and Simonette’s desire for a transfer of authority to occur within a corrupt system — the latter an unsettling echo of the Egyptian military’s centrality to the ouster of that country’s last dictator and its aggravation of authoritarianism before and since.
What’s missing is the common people we never see in this play — the masses who made Egypt’s revolution inevitable were cut out of the process by those who made it possible, and Purchase’s elliptical structure — with several repeated scenes and alternate outcomes from the same event — locks us in a circle. The soldier and the aristocrat, classically the two types of people who form nations, never leave the one room we see them in; we hear great numbers of people fighting and dying outside.
That locked room’s dread is painted masterfully by Hill’s light and sound design, a sequence of blackouts and generator-spotlights and envelopes of music and noise that form tangible barriers with ephemeral substance. In a striking, eerie device, each of the two women alternatingly appears in a mirror that the other is sitting before, to accentuate the two sides of one thought they represent. But the play’s scariest enclosure is that very psychic echo-chamber. In furtive and all-too-realistic references to its edicts and abuses the tyrannical State is a terrifying presence here, but ironically is not in the room; it is a single “side”’s ideological warfare and unbridgeable frames of reference we are witnessing in the two rebels’ doubtful alliance, to a conclusion as imperfect (and in the play, left as open-ended) as any of the blind spots and unfinished business of the revolutions we know in real life.
But the multiple courses that the story cycles through are not really about closed circuits, but open choices — and the possibilities of actual consensus rather than isolated plotting. The play ends on an image of movements consuming themselves, with one character’s apparent murder and another’s possible suicide, suspended between the moment she might complete or reconsider it. By the time the world of Purchase has come about, it’s down to two people, and just “leaders,” and one choice; returning us to our own time, the play leaves us with impressions of the steps left to all of us before we get there from here.
A cultural, rather than political, passage of generations is portrayed in The Strategist, a much lighter (though somewhat longer) play by Hill and Berit Johnson. There’s a history-painting’s worth of characters in this comedy of manners: several waves of colonists in venerable, trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In a mecca with an ever-transient population, life-support is the elusive commodity that links them all, from working-class oldtimers to neocon-ish real estate entrepreneurs to ex-hippie indie capitalists and youthful internet junkies of indeterminate occupation and income.
The title strategist is Maxwell Kraft (in an athletically overwhelmed characterization by George Bronos), a youngish man who has a gift for putting disparate dreamers and social-frontier types together for lucrative new trends but has established nothing gainful of his own. It’s a mystifying profession straight out of a William Gibson novel and right into contemporary Brooklyn’s world of new cultural models and post-collapse America’s financial ecosystem of phantom commerce. But Maxwell’s life too is headed for a crash, as his own phantom funders — his moneyed mom and grandfather — arrive for a visit and demand to see something, anything, he has to show for their investment.
Definitions are elusive, though concrete expressions of people’s lifestyle and enterprise are an obsession of the characters: running jokes track the connoisseurship of typefaces in a dominatrix’s business card or a website’s landing page, and the world revolves around the aphorisms of celebrity tweeter Onan Fapwank. The players’ names are like news-crawls of their inner character (from Fapwank’s self-regard to Maxwell’s crafted personality). Two coffee-barflies serve as a vintage chorus (in the best pop pentameter I’ve heard since Prospero’s pages in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier graphic novel), and the dominatrix specializes in verbal abuse, a funny metaphor for the tortured language many of the other characters use to obscure whatever it is exactly that they do to survive.
Hill excels as a provider of fresh content for classic frameworks (see also his live sci-fi “movie serial,” Spacemen From Space), and with first-time writing collaborator Johnson this screwball Restoration comedy is no exception. The play’s own structure is a dizzying clockwork of mismade connections and comic misfortune, as Maxwell gets beholden to the dominatrix to use his apartment for a promo video shoot on the same day his family are coming and at the same time he forgot he invited a local vegan activist he’s wooing (while a lamb cooks for the family and he tries to maintain the lie that he’s meat-free, along with the ones that he’s employed, has the rent ready for his landlord, etc.).
The 18-person ensemble (with several multiple roles as well) navigates this machinery with vigor, especially Bronos, and Linus Gelber in an eye- and “R”-rolling tour de force as Fapwank; Bob Laine as Maxwell’s serenely abused roommate; Rokia L. Shearin in a charismatic powderkeg performance as the dom; Ivanna Cullinan as the terminally chagrined mother and an airborne internet tastemaker; Matthew Napoli in an understatedly uproarious turn as a Wall Street heavyweight and secret masochist; and Amanda LaPergola serving gourmet shtick as a café regular and urban Revolutionary War reenactor.
Hill and Johnson provide an x-ray view on an intricate edifice of concealment — the sources of support people would rather not discuss, the inner lives no one’s asked about, etc. — and bring everyone together in an unexpected, true community as the walls all fall and the plot’s gears click magisterially. Maxwell’s frenemies advise him of “the new privacy” catching on amongst reformed obsessive status-updaters, and a number of joke payoffs and plot-thread tie-ups suggest a “new resolution,” which the writers and ensemble make wholly believable. The play ends with the full cast delivering a valedictory poem removing the fourth wall too, to dedicate the story from its creators to the immigrants and laborers and artists who have in their turn kept the lifeblood of this New York frontier flowing for many eras, hopefully in continuing kinship. Everything comes together at the end, and for once it feels like the thin air some good fortune seems to come from is a big sky we can all live under.