BWW Review: MUSEUM 2040 at 4615 Theatre Company
Welcome to the year 2040. After decades of political unrest, climate disasters, violent militias, and limits on speech, a pocket of peace emerged in the late 2020s, only to be marred by a violent terrorist attack at the Lincoln Memorial in 2030. Now, a decade later, 4615 Theatre Company invites audiences to the dedication ceremony of the new National Museum of American Reconciliation.
The museum seeks to honor the memories of those lost in the 2030 attack while moving forward to a new, unified vision of the future for Americans. Upon arrival, patrons are brought for a security check in the main waiting room; once cleared, they are invited to view a brief documentary that reflects on the early 21stCentury, most notably the events in the late 2020s that led to the attack, and the aftermath. Once the exhibit hall's doors are opened, audiences are able to view a range of artifacts and audio recordings dating back to 2008, when the post-9/11 mood shifted to a revival of the country's "culture wars." Tracing from the 2008 campaign through the unrest of the 2010s and 2020s to the attacks and the aftermath, the exhibit is arranged chronologically from the entrance with one wall dedicated as a memorial; the stage for the ceremony and discussion has been placed at the base of this wall. Patrons are given time to pursue the exhibit before the ceremony, which features a musical performance by musician Sean Harrison and speeches by the museum's acting director, Dr. Alicia LaPointe-Smith, the US President (via video from an emergency climate conference in Scotland), and survivors of the 2030 attack, including former teacher Elizabeth O'Neill, Senegal native Sebastien Dakeyo, and hot dog vendor turned Senator Ryan Hirota. Dr. LaPointe-Smith then leads a panel discussion with Dakeyo, Hirota, and activist Erik Patterson. But the collection seems to have a few gaps, and it becomes increasingly clear that, despite the museum's mission to preserve memory and promote reconciliation, some memories may be left behind and reconciliation may not be as easy as we hope.
To call Museum 2040 a performance feels lacking - the work that goes into this production is so far beyond the acting, sets, and script, it's really more of an experience. In addition to the poignant and thoughtful script, playwright Renee Calarco creates a whole history for the United States, filling in the next twenty years to bring us to her show. The details put into each character's histories - as well as that of the country itself - and how they are carried over and reacted to in the performance are quite stunning. For example, we first learn of Senator Hirota during the documentary playing in the holding room - he is referenced as one of the first civilians to respond to the attack in 2030, when he was managing a hot dog cart near the Lincoln Memorial - but throughout the evening the audience learns about his personal history: growing up in Connecticut as the grandson of a man who was held in FDR's internment camps during the Second World War, studying to be a EMT, and eventually running for the Senate. The audience is also shown our own collective history with the same detail: from the 2008 campaigns through Obama's presidency through the 2016 elections and Trump's impeachment, the information is of course firmly based in our reality, but when we see invitations to Trump's "Acquittal Gala" and protest signs from his second inauguration, it's almost startling how easily we could bridge from March 2020 to these near-future possibilities (unrelated, but also completely related: PLEASE VOTE). Even the podcasts and TED Talks sampled feel realistic; the bleaker and more extreme predictions, leading to the 2030 attack that is the focal point of the museum, don't feel the least bit outlandish when the history is built on such a solid foundation of what we know or can easily see coming to pass. Ms. Calarco's world-building is impressively, hauntingly, realistic.
Bringing this all to startling life is 4615's incredible cast and crew, helmed by director Jordan Friend. Calarco's world is built out with such detail and precision, not only are the cast members in character, but so is the audience. Audience members are given a program for the museum's opening ceremony upon their arrival instead of a traditional playbill, and are subjected to the same security checks and restrictions, which are managed by Michael Crowley's no-nonsense Agent Raney and the fierce Katie Culligan as Agent Aquinas, who can't help but lose some of her tough exterior in the presence of the famous musician Sean Harrison (portrayed by Sean Chyun, who also serves as composer). When shepherded into the main exhibit hall, audience members are able to pursue the exhibit as any patron would, while watching the main characters arrive, mingle, and catch up with each other ahead of the ceremony. Because not every character is clearly identified, it's easy to fall into the story as a character patron, and, in turn, the actual cast and crew easily integrate with the "real" audience. This is also partly due to the fascinating exhibits themselves - the work of Scenic and Lighting Designer Dean Leong, Production Manager Jade Brooks-Bartlett, Stage Manager Paola Vanessa Losada, and Associate Director Jon Jon Johnson. Jeannette Christensen's costumes also contribute to the overall sense of immersion, since the costumes are great reflections of each character, but still easily fit into a typical present-day DC crowd. Adding to the immersion, UI/UX Designer Gregory Keng Strasser has built out an entire website for the museum that attendees can browse at their leisure even after leaving the performance (the link is on the back of the program).
The main cast members are fun to identify, given that the audience learns a little about them from the documentary and exhibit pieces before they share their stories in the ceremony. Dylan Arredondo, as Senator Ryan Hirota, is the consummate US Senator - I half-thought he was someone I used to work with during my tenure in government. He's affable, charismatic, and intelligent, but full of quirks that could make him endearing to voters. Shaquille Stewart's Sebastien Dakeyo is movingly emotive, and his tale is one of sadder stories, though it's satisfying to see what the intervening years have granted him. As the activist Erik Patterson, Reginald Richard brings a harsher, realistic edge to the discussions, as well as the reminders that some of these battles extend farther into our history than 2008. Richard is a good balance to Arredondo's friendliness without being outright rude; his character is simply a bit more on edge because he's not as readily optimistic, given his experiences. Rounding out the cast are Valerie Adams Rigsbee, whose sweet, emotional performance is underlined with a steely spine; the raw, heartbreaking Mary Myers; and the brisk and precise Miranda Zola.
Museum 2040 is a stunning, meticulous look at the future we face if we don't break out of the cycles that have become a part of American life. It feels real not just because of the intense attention of the incredible team at 4615 Theatre Company, but because it's the reality we live and could easily continue to face if we don't - as the museum aims - examine our history and consider how to move forward.
4615 Theatre Company's world premiere of Museum 2040 is playing at the Dance Loft on 14 through March 29. Performance time is approximately two hours. Ticket and other information can be found on the 4615 website.
Photos courtesy of Ryan Maxwell Photography.