Half Straddle’s IS THIS A ROOM at the Kitchen
The first thing one encounters once the Kitchen doors open into Half Straddle’s Is This A Room (running through January 13) is a wall of haze so thick you can barely make out the row of audience members sitting across the stage opposite you. Ominous and heavy, it suggests the fog of war, something impenetrable or hidden. Once house lights have dimmed and the performance begins, that haze’s main action over the course of the sixty-seven minute production is to lift, as Tina Satter’s direction and Half Straddle’s pitch-perfect company establish and then maintain an unblinking focus that cuts through the dissipating fog and rewards the audience’s taut attention.
The play is not a play exactly; or at least was not intended to be performed, as the script is comprised of a verbatim transcript of the interrogation of 25-year-old alleged leaker of classified information Reality Winner. According to several interviews, Tina Satter was captivated by the news story regarding the impossibly named Ms. Winner, and discovered the transcript of the questioning between Winner and two FBI agents, which takes place mostly in her front yard and later inside an unused room in her apartment. (The title of the work is pulled from one of the more surreal moments in the performance wherein the audio of a third FBI agent – played by Becca Blackwell – is caught and recorded on transcript saying, in a strangely timed interruption of the mounting tension of the interrogation, “Is this – is this a room? Is that a room?”)
Prior to this show, Half Straddle had generally worked from a script devised and directed by Tina Satter, and so the verbatim-text-as-source-material approach of Is This A Room provides opportunity to ruminate on how the performance operates within what one might consider the Half Straddle aesthetic. Texturally, it has a velvety darkness to it, a canvas made strange around the edges. The synthy soundscape (original score by Sanae Yamada) evokes past Half Straddle worlds, which are often built on or around music. Frequent unintelligible noises abound. There is an obsession with pets/animals and how to safely remove them from the premises. One of the pets is casually misgendered by an FBI agent.
All this provides ample opportunity for Satter & company, with great technical rigor and theatrical care, to warp the image ever so slightly, often bringing Reality Winner into the foreground and blurring the FBI men, sometimes obscuring Winner all together by bringing her interrogators so uncomfortably close that we can’t see her through them. The pets are made object, appearing as stuffed animals, carried off stage never to return. The sound and lights become active instruments of obstruction, as the transcript contains a number of redactions which are staged using escalating blackouts and sound throbs to menacing effect.
Emily Davis is mesmerizing as Reality Winner, showing tension, fear, strength, and sense of humor without pandering or overplaying. Pete Simpson’s work as a trying-too-hard-to-seem-friendly FBI agent with a sinus infection (you really can’t make this up, can you?) balances detailed blandness and warmth with the cold empowerment of a government interrogator, toggling back and forth with dangerous ease. T.L. Thompson provides a steadying presence as the second interrogator, while Becca Blackwell, as the accumulation of background voices that are captured in the transcript and attributed to “Unknown Male,” enigmatically wanders in and out chattering into a radio and occasionally slows their speech as though in sonic slow motion, showcasing a masterful blend of fragmented naturalism with surrealist fringe that colors the production as a whole.
On the night I was attending, Reality Winner’s mother was in the audience. There was a buzzy slightly anxious feeling to the lobby, several camera people and photographers present. Talking to one of the press reps beforehand, I had learned that Winner’s mother had read the transcript and been in contact with the cast but had not yet seen the performance. While one could make an educated guess on the piece’s political point of view – most likely favorable to Reality Winner, probably in opposition to government forces – this still felt like a fraught moment. What if people laughed? What if that laughter turned the work into something that felt too light, or too… manipulated? Would Is This A Room survive as document and comment both?
The answer: Yes. The laughs that it evokes are well-earned, coming mostly from behavioral recognition, not much at the cost of any party onstage (Simpson’s bumbling gets a few laughs but it’s not mean-spirited). Perhaps it’s because Reality Winner is such a compelling and relatable person, made heroic in a commonplace way via this particular staging. We both are her and we aren’t. We don’t know (at least most of us) what it’s like to legally possess several firearms including a pink AK-15. But we do know how it feels to be stuck in an office, trying to transfer out, and reach a point that we have to do something, anything, to feel better about what we’re doing. We know how it feels to be more concerned with our pets than ourselves. We know what it’s like to become caught in something we can’t talk our way out of. What we didn’t know is what it might be like if the FBI showed up on our doorsteps, and that’s what makes Is This A Room so powerful – it’s us versus them to be sure, but a less obvious version we haven’t seen before.