BWW Reviews: Surveillance Methods Exposed in INTERROGATION at Capital Fringe
Clearly - especially in this city - it isn't very shocking that someone decided to mount a show about the perceived highly intrusive state of surveillance in America today during this year's Capital Fringe. This is especially true because the hot button topic has been a source of some debate this year, especially in our post-Edward Snowden world (and, yes, there's a reference to going to Hong Kong/Moscow in the subject play). It's probably not even a surprise that the author of this show - Interrogation - is John Feffer who has written a slew of politically-charged shows for the Fringe, including last year's The Politician. While that show received a rave review from yours truly, this one is more problematic though very creative.
So, here's the deal. I am not going to give you a highly detailed plot synopsis because the twists and turns the show takes are best experienced cold, live, and, well, with some knowledge of how Fringe works as a festival is a plus too. Suffice it to say we meet John Miller (John Feffer himself) pretty quick and he's not afraid to break the fourth wall (yes, there's audience participation). He tells us a little bit about his work and how much he loves it. It comes off as so natural, so conversational, that we're not totally sure his monologue is a pre-show discussion or, you know, the play we all came to see. And that's the point. Nothing may be totally like it seems. Are we the suspects? Or just observers of action? Or both?
Anyway, this war vet with a headache problem conducts surveillance/sting operations in group settings as his career. His method is bringing individuals to "parties" with the offer of door prizes/food to obtain information from them using any and all resources, including human and electronic ones. We're at such a party in this play and get to see him do his work, but it's only through an encounter with Michael Crowley (in this instance, as himself, though he does play another character in a flashback scene) very late in the play that we can internalize the extent of the surveillance activity and related interrogations and their nature. Or do we? Suffice it to say, Feffer makes clear that this is a socio-political issue that impacts us all. The idea of who does the surveillance and who is the subject of it is not a situation involving two distinct boxes ("the doers" and "the subjects).
Feffer clearly has an agenda - and without taking on what I think about it - I will say that although he delivers his message in a creative way, it doesn't particularly serve as an example of good playwriting. The script meanders. And meanders. And meanders. Until it doesn't. Indeed, as I saw it, the issues are multi-fold: lengthy expositional elements, a very slow start, a heavy reliance on gimmicks, a pretty big dose of repetition (at least in the middle section), and a lead actor who is, well, not really a lead actor. The repetition of situations - while warranted to expose the never-ending cycle of surveillance - isn't necessarily a good thing when a play is only an hour and a few minutes long. At the end, one might ponder whether there was anything there or was it a small story stretched way too far? Likewise, in this case, having a lead actor who is not really an actor might work well with the premise, but in Feffer's case - since he is so close to the story - there's a potential for him to be working overtime to force a positive reaction to his work rather than just trusting the material. A put on southern accent served more of a distraction than anything else, but the real problem was it was made obvious he was working far too hard to make his problematic play...work.
It's unclear to me how much of a role Director Matty Griffiths had in mounting this production, but Feffer would have probably done well to trust some outside expertise in making his play more focused, and perhaps consider using a dramaturg.
Still, props to Feffer for the creativity! Sometimes experiments work and sometimes they don't - at least for me. Yet, Fringe is definitely a platform to experiment.
"Interrogation" is being presented as part of the Capital Fringe Festival at the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church - 900 Massachusetts Ave, NW in Washington, DC. There are currently three performances left through July 26. For specific show times, ticket information, and other details, consult the show's page on the Capital Fringe website. Running time is around 65 minutes.
Graphic: Courtesy of Capital Fringe website.