"We're sitting on the stage?"
Walker Art Center
In the Walker Art Center lobby on Thursday night, one member of a group of young people attending the first performance of this year's Out There series could be heard learning that at Out There, you can't take anything for granted.
As it happens, Is This a Room is one of the most accessible, gripping productions in the recent history of the progressive performing art series. Reality Winner, the former U.S. intelligence specialist who's the subject of the show, once received a picture drawn by a 10-year-old who was moved by the production.
You may not want to bring your own schoolchildren to the show, but children even younger than 10 could pick up on the essence of what's happening in director Tina Satter's taut production, created under the auspices of the New York company Half Straddle.
Is This a Room is a dramatization of an encounter that unfolded in Augusta, Georgia, on June 3, 2017, when federal investigators arrived to search the home, car, and person of Reality Winner. Yes, that's actually her name; if it sounds familiar, it's because she subsequently pleaded guilty to a charge of leaking classified information. The 28-year-old is currently serving a five-year prison term.
The leaked information was a report on Russian attacks on American voting software during the 2016 election, part of that country's now-infamous campaign to disrupt the U.S. engine of democracy. Apparently frustrated by public debate over whether Russia was culpable, Winner mailed the report to The Intercept; clues in that publication's reporting put investigators onto Winner's trail.
That brings us to the hour-plus of Is This a Room, which takes the transcript of Winner's initial interrogation as its text. Frank Boyd and T.L. Thompson play FBI agents who arrive at Winner's home with a search warrant and some questions that they're pretty confident they know the answers to. As Winner, a stunning Emily Davis is ostensibly cooperative, though initially denying she did anything seriously wrong. By the end of the interrogation, Winner knows her life has changed forever.
At this harrowing moment in public life, the theatrical presentation of documentary evidence is becoming something of a trend. Last fall, Mixed Blood Theatre hosted a theatrical adaptation of the Mueller Report, with an all-star cast performing "a search for the truth in 10 acts."
Is This a Room, though, isn't a report: it's a verbatim account of a pivotal moment in the life of an American who committed an act of civil disobedience because, it seems, she thought U.S. taxpayers deserved to know what their government knew about Russian election interference.
The show may be especially difficult for animal lovers to watch. Much of the early business involves Winner's cat and rescue dog: first, securing them in safe spaces while the house is searched, and ultimately, figuring out who's going to take care of the animals if Winner goes into custody. At a terrifying moment, Winner thinks first and last of her vulnerable pets.
It's a bravura demonstration of the power of live theater, with Satter and her cast paying careful attention to every detail. Alternately friendly and aggressive, the agents obliterate Winner's bubble of personal space to dramatize the fact that her private world is no longer private. She hands over her keys, her phone, her computer password. No lawyer is present.
Throughout, actor Becca Blackwell paces around the lengthwise platform where the action transpires (a block of audience seats is positioned behind the platform on the McGuire Theater stage, across from the rest of the audience), filling in for an unnamed agent or agents heard on the interrogation recording. Thomas Dunn's lighting design underlines moments like the utterance of the show's title, a disconnected phrase that comes across like an absurdist nod to Kafka.
Is This a Room is a uniquely powerful show, easy to recommend to anyone. You're bound to come out of it with a complex stew of thoughts and feelings, and a new way of understanding the stakes of the challenges we're all facing together as the 2020 election approaches.
Even Donald Trump, to whom the entire national security apparatus ultimately reports, had thoughts to share about Reality Winner. "So unfair," he tweeted about her prison sentence. "Gee, this is 'small potatoes' compared to what Hillary Clinton did!"
Regarding Trump's statement, Winner — who told her FBI interrogators she'd complained about the NSA televisions being constantly turned to Fox News — said, "I can't thank him enough."
Is This a Room
Walker Art Center
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Walker Art Center