BWW Review: Governmental bureaucracy is serious yet slyly hilarious in Voyage Theater Company's THE HOPE HYPOTHESIS at The Sheen Center
Is playwright Cat Miller in possession of an oversized blender? For her play The Hope Hypothesis, she tosses in Alice in Wonderland, a Kafkaesque tale, absurdist comedy, a spy thriller, soap opera histrionics and a deep state government mystery all together. She turns the dial to frappe because that's the most fun setting. Out pours a surprisingly refreshing and very delicious treat which successfully manages to be equally dark and light.
There were two inspirations for this story. A New York Times article chronicling comprehensive bureaucracy in the Islamic State. The second was the experience of a friend who was almost deported despite being married to an American. Amena is the Alice of this play. Down into the rabbit hole of America's immigration system she will fall. Whether or not she finds a Mad Hatter is debatable but the Mock Turtle and Tweedledum certainly make an appearance.
Amena (Soraya Broukhim) arrives at an American government facility. She approaches a Teller. He asks for her identification, including a birth certificate. She doesn't have one. He, therefore, is unable to help her. Get one and come back another day. She then, oddly, pulls out a birth certificate. The ISIS country flag shocks the Teller. Amena has aroused suspicion and badly fumbles her explanation. The Teller pushes the panic button. Whoosh, down the hole she goes.
Amena is confronted by two FBI agents. The lead questioner (William Ragsdale) has little regard for due process. The other is a dolt (Greg Brostrom). Amena's emotionally fragile boyfriend Brendan (Charlie O'Rourke, excellent) comes searching for her. The Teller and his supervisor (Connor Carew) are also questioned. The pot is stirred. Paranoia is stoked. The climate is fear and uncertainty. The plot evolves cleverly and convincingly, always making sure to have time for amusing asides.
The Teller doesn't appreciate the term "H.R." He doesn't like to be thought of as a "resource." His 22.5 months in this job is going to be his stepping stone to the Presidency of the American Federation of Government Employees. An underachieving nincompoop, he thrives by throwing others under the bus. "You forfeit due process when you align yourself with an enemy agent," he proclaims. Wesley Zurick is slinky and hilarious playing this delusional nobody.
Laughter is in abundance in this production. Ms. Miller has directed her own play. The care and attention to setting the right tone is critical for success. Her characters have to play the absurdity straight as an arrow in order to deliver memorable throwaway lines like "there was a problem with pills." That one comes out of nowhere and elicits a huge guffaw.
The actors effectively embrace their caricatures but each of them leave the necessary room for realism. That allows for a healthy balance between comedic trifle and sly commentary on America's current climate. Scenes which unravel throughout this play can be ridiculously melodramatic like a silly soap opera. The intermingling of characters and locations provide ample opportunities for escalating lunacy.
Like a good thriller, however, things frequently turn quite serious as well. When a person loses hope, they either destroy themselves or others. Or both. That is the hypothesis of the title. Ms. Miller's use of sarcasm could not be a more perfect fit for our times. We are in the land of quid pro quo and border wall cages. Facts are just opinions. A little levity to shake us free of the oppressive feeling of hopelessness is most welcome.
The action is set in three rooms of a governmental facility. An exceptional set design by Zoë Hurwitz beautifully transitions between teller window to interview room to employee break room. The scene changes are fast and creatively executed.
Will Amena successfully navigate the dark forest that is the U.S. immigration system and find her escape back to normalcy? When Carol (Mary E. Hodges) arrives to this particular tea party, the rule of law seems to guide next steps. This is Trump's America, however. The land where skin color defines good versus evil. Truth and hope are in short supply. What's the best part of this play? A good beginning, a great middle and a satisfying conclusion.
The Hope Hypothesis manages to take a current, very serious topic and turn it on its head for laughs. Audaciously commingling styles is what makes this production stand out. I left the theater impressed and happy. Then I turned on the news. Oh well, at least there was some hope (and considerable entertainment) to briefly distract me from the world at large.
The Hope Hypothesis is presented by the Voyage Theater Company and will be performed at the Sheen Center through November 15, 2019.