PREPAREDNESS: An HR Session Runs Amuck
In the early goings of Hillary Miller’s Preparedness, playing at HERE Arts Center in a partnership production between Bushwick Starr and HERE through December 11, a character brings a cat onstage. The stage in question, meticulously designed by Carolyn Mraz, resembles a messy faculty break room. One might gather from the posters on the wall that we are behind of the scenes of a public university and find ourselves in that particular wing that the under-funded theater department dolefully occupies. From carelessly stacked binders, non-functioning clock, and aged coffee maker, we may assume a kitchen-sink aesthetic is at play (indeed, later in the play, a working hand blower is revealed in a secondary bathroom space). So the cat seems …out of place? Because it’s a robot. Specifically, it’s an animatronic stuffed animal that moves its head, blinks its eyes, and meows. For a moment there is a possibility for the audience to assume (fear?) that the production has made the choice to have a not-real cat in an otherwise real room stand in for an actual cat. I leaned over my friend and whispered in mock horror, “What’s with the cat?” A mere five seconds later, Jeff, the cat’s owner and chair of the theater department (played by Lou Liberatore), addresses the issue head-on. It is a robot, and is there as a support/care device. It has a silly name, Cat Blanchett. It even plays music on command. And the tension in the audience is immediately resolved by this neat trick — oh thank God they don’t want us to try to believe this cat is real. In doing this, the production gains something — our trust perhaps, or at least, our appreciation for not being asked to pretend too much.
Upon this tidy building block of trust is stacked the next block of information, but it feels a little off. Not only is this the first faculty meeting back since the pandemic forced everyone off campus (several of the faculty members wear masks upon entrance but quickly take them off, while the stagehands are masked throughout), but it is also the day that HR implements a training program. Just what the training is for, no one except for the chair seems to know just yet, but it would appear that the department’s entire budget is riding on their ability to complete this particular hour of training.
Unlike with the cat, this wasn’t a condition about to be delightfully reversed. When the HR person arrives, the play doubles down on the stakes, as Kath (characterized by Alison Cimmet) comes across as an exaggerated bundle of condescending enthusiasm and total ineptitude (i.e., there’s no way they’re getting through this training if she’s in charge). Preparedness has by this time positioned itself as a comedy, even as it turns out that the training to be completed is called Active Campus Operations Shooter Training (or, ACOST, one of many acronyms amusingly strewn about the play). On the one hand, we’ve got Laurette (Nora Cole), a long-time teacher who makes a totally legitimate argument against the training due to the fact that the first video they’re being forced to watch stars a student who she has banned from her classroom due to threatening behavior — i.e., HR has cast the very person who would be the first likely suspect for an actual shooting event. But we’ve also got other characters who shift their alliances for or against the training with less emphatic backing, and the play diverts focus from why the characters might not want to complete this training (information we need to stay invested in the core premise) and starts wandering into past relationships instead.
A sequence of shorter break-out scenes between members of the faculty show off Miller’s sturdy hand for one-on-one dialogue and give the characters some space to exist outside of the larger narrative needs of the play, and as the HR session and already-strained alliances of the faculty devolve, things do start getting weird but maybe not quite weird enough. At some point, I wished for the whole thing to go totally strange, to explode from within and become something else, like the popcorn in a bowl that is hurled at one of the characters by means of demonstrating how to use a projectile for survival.
The above desire for a play to explode and turn into something else has basis in dramaturgical theory — I’ve heard it described as ‘a play that breaks in the middle,’ and such a play usually features an intentional radical departure from its original premise. As Preparedness progresses, the cat keeps playing music, though it seemed like maybe it broke at one point. The play, having almost broken several times over, keeps trying to loop back to its original stakes. Multiple scenes feel like restarts, and it becomes exceedingly unclear where any feasible endpoint might lie. The actors are uniformly game and the moments of mayhem are good fun, but when the end does come, there’s a sense that we might need to go back and take this training over again.