BWW Reviews: POL POT Is a Precocious Puzzlebox
If you are an avid NPR listener, or a war crimes trial fanboy like myself, you might know that last week two of the top figures in the Khmer Rouge, the dictatorial cadre that ruled Cambodia brutally during the late 1970's, were convicted and sentenced for crimes against humanity. They are 83 and 88 years old, and their trial lasted about as long as their reign, eventually dooming them to life in prison, almost meaningless for men of their age.
In the same amount of time their trial took, they both lead and aided in the complete transformation of Cambodian society, murdering at least 1.5 million people and starving half again as many to death. This incomprehensible amount of death was to serve the "agrarian socialist" philosophies (that is, the forcible relocation of urban dwellers to rural agricultural work to create an ideal society) of the dictator of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge aka Saloth Sar aka Brother Number One aka Pol Pot.
So, when I went to see Pol Pot & Associates, LLP, produced by Longacre Lea at the Callan Theater, I braced myself in the same way that I brace myself before I see a Holocaust play: housework, a little good food, and happy thoughts. Imagine my surprise that this play opens not with a brutal murder or gruesome killing fields, but with six white guys discussing quantification while chilling in a living room with a bachelor-pad vibe to it (Kudos to set designer Elizabeth McFadden on nailing exactly how 6 unmarried middle-aged men would decorate a house).
As the strange and sharp-turning story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that there are eerie similarities between the regime of the genocidal dictator and the living arrangements of these six men. They are a group of urban creatures who have moved out into the country to live a self-sufficient life. They live in a supposedly egalitarian commune that actually has strong class-based divides. And all isn't as it seems to be.
This dissemblance is the true throughline of the play, not Cambodia or its now-dead mass murdering dictator. This play is not a history lesson. It is a case study of a particular allegedly utopian, allegedly closed community. The play questions what is true about a community versus what is perceived to be true by the members of it, and how outside intervention can radically alter it. Communism is just a red herring.
But collectivism plays a significant role in the production. There is no protagonist in the traditional sense. Speaking and stage time is divided relatively equitably between each of the members of the community, and the major changes in the play occur in the structure of the community, not within the members themselves. The real plot movement happens when a stranger invades the community from the outside world by spraining her ankle on the community's property. But her unnerving switches between normal teen girl and oracular occult predictor of death disrupt the stasis of the community and, interestingly, also marks when the play turns from being just a weird guy-group comedy to an absurd mystery. "She" (we never learn her name) only gets about one and a half scenes, but Kira Burri's sometimes frank and innocent sometimes hammy and weird performance sets the tone for a play that veers between the intellectual and the visceral.
The community (or commune as one character calls it) is also split between the intellectual and visceral. The community in question is made of six former colleagues at a law firm, who have formed their own society by signing onto a charter, which regulates the way that they collectively make decisions. Each of the members has a particular role within the community, though the members insist that they are equals. Brother Frog, the de facto leader and intellectual progenitor of the group, is played with wonderfully pompous mania by Michael Glenn. Chris Davenport's Brother Raven and Michael John Casey's Brother Hectare are also intellectuals and founders, but, instead of emulating Frog's fury, they embrace the collective with cooler emotions: Raven the peacemaker, Hectare as the shepherding mother. But their still waters run deep, and their lack of frenzy doesn't indicate a lack of fervor but, instead, an abundance of it. These three members form their own upper class in the group, all formerly in upper management at their former law firm.
The other three were all non-lawyers in the firm and likewise form supporting roles in the community. They make the visceral body of the community. Mal (played with charming morosity by Daniel Vito Siefring) is the black sheep, Daniel Corey's adept Tod is a normalizing audience stand-in as a raisonneur, and the difficult role of Fiver the avuncularly-treated shaman of the group is played by Seamus Miller. This last role is the most challenging because of the character's mild intellectual disability which makes it hard to determine whether the acting is wooden or if the choices being made merely reflect the inability of the character to communicate a specific emotion.
Taken as a whole, the group seems a motley crew. That variety creates both the conflict that drives this story forward and, like notes in a chord, create a gorgeous harmony. Some of the design reflects this harmony, with the set attempting to integrate natural elements (also serviceably expressing time jumps) and the quite impressive lights by John Burkland that create a symphonic palette for the plays transitions between scenes and moods. But Kathleen Akerley's play makes this musical metaphor real and powerful when the group sings "Scarborough Fair" together. That moment is, without question, the most stunning and gorgeous moment of the entire evening, and it makes you believe that this community is a beautiful thing and could continue existing forever if it was uninterrupted. But it is interrupted and shockingly so. The girl who first invaded their lives is dead, shot to death nearby. All of the members of the community are suspects.
This murder mystery is the meat of the play, and curiously follows a plot similar to the traditional hard-boiled detective structure: a mystery girl appears and interrupts stasis, then she is found dead, and then a detective (in this case played by a cunning and rangy Jonathon Church) interviews suspects until the plot turns for a final time. But the execution of this plot in Pol Pot isn't as straightforward as that. This play is in the Absurdist tradition, which doesn't necessarily mean that the play is nonsensical, but that Akerley (as playwright and director) uses nonlinear and alienating elements to express that the world of this play operates differently from a traditional realistic world. There will be significant jumps in time, backwards and forwards, and there will be occurrences in the play that will be strange with little to no explanation, things that may or may not be resolved completely by the end of the play.
But this mysterious element to this crypsis seems intentional. While you will get the satisfaction of being told who killed the girl, you won't get the catharsis of easily understanding the world of the play and satisfactorily knowing exactly where all of the bits fall into place. Even though I wish the the actual fates of the charcters were explored in more than just a few throwaway lines, I still got a punchy climax that will made me gasp and a ride home full of discussion and questions: "Was that scene real?" Was that person who he said he was?" "Does that offstage character even exist?" "Who is lying when, and, if they are, why?" This dichotomy makes Pol Pot & Associates, LLP a neat jab-cross of playwriting, prying you open with the straightforward and understandable then hitting hard with absurdism and enigma that never resolves. I'll warn you now against expecting resolution, if you like all of the strings of a plot tied into a neat bow, you may not like this show, and it may even infuriate you. But, as playwrights like Sondheim and Becket have taught us, resolution isn't everything in what makes a good play.
Psychology texts talk about the Tetris Effect, named for the classic game, thats result from concentration on a puzzle, creating hypnagogic hallucinations where the player recreates combinations and attempts to solve imagined iterations of the puzzle as they go to sleep. That's the key to this smart, funny and curious play: it will leave you with a moderate sense of fulfillment after its denouement, but it also leaves you with a sense of confusion that makes a great gobstopper to suck on. The positive incongruities of the plot, the clever wordplay of the script, and the excitement of the murder mystery stuck with me long after the closing bows, so, if you want to give your brain a good workout, check out Pol Pot & Associates, LLP.
Pol Pot & Associates, LLP is playing at the Callan Theater on the campus of Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (3801 Harewood Road NE) near the Brookland-CUA stop on the Red Line. The play runs a little over two hours with one intermisson. Complete directions can be found here. All tickets are under $20 and can be reserved here.
Photos courtesy of Long Acre Lea and Theatre Washington