By J. Scott Hill
We live in a culture of surveillance beyond what George Orwell warned against. Orwell’s dystopia in Nineteen Eighty-Four was a Soviet-style nightmare, a nationwide near-gulag in which the people were desperately unhappy. Today, real people are happy to be surveilled by security cameras, red-light enforcement cameras, tollbooth transponders, GPS, Google, OnStar, cell phone apps, and airport scanners. All of this surveillance is supposed to make America freer, and many people believe it does.
The Viable Theater Company’s original play The Observatory, produced at the Charnel House Chicago, explores the effects of surveillance not only upon those being watched but also upon those doing the watching. The premise of The Observatory is simple enough: a government agency will contact a model citizen and offer them a large amount of money to observe, from the comfort of their own home, a hologram of a prisoner, day in and day out, for one year. The script is timely and timeless, and is careful to provide a reasonable explanation of the hologram technology. Like all good science fiction, however, The Observatory focuses on characters and relationships rather than science and conjecture. Writer/Director Vincent Truman creates a vision of the present (wonderful theater, disturbing future history) in the vein of Richard Matheson or Harlan Ellison.
Vincent Truman also plays Victor, the ranking government agent in The Observatory. As the G-Man in charge of the installation and use of the holographic observatory, Truman’s Victor is less like J. Edgar Hoover than he is like Ryan Seacrest or Greg Probst. As familiar and appropriate as this disingenuous portrayal of Victor is, it isn’t what makes the audience accept the complicated technology of the premise. The key to The Observatory’s believability is the tech guy Tony, played by Joseph Sultani. With Truman’s tight writing guiding the action, Sultani’s performance is very much like a teacher who knows how to distill complex subject matter down to the basic elements and serve that information up in pieces his students can easily consume and digest.
Once the device is installed, the transitions between when the device is turned on or off are handled cleverly in the script with a brownout, brilliantly simulated by “sound and vision” Drew Cohen. The music is uncredited, but has the feeling of Norwegian electronic downtempo – clean, but not sterile, and scintillating.
This show is not predominantly about the future technology. This show is about the relationship between the observer and the observed, the audience and the performer, the guard and the captive, particularly when the communication does not go both directions. As much as The Observatory is about how being a guard has much in common with being a prisoner, it is also about the false relationships we all conjure up in our minds between ourselves and our favorite celebrities or even fictional characters.
One of the high points of The Observatory is the performance of Colin Fewell as David, the observer. In many ways, the audience is asked by The Observatory to identify with David. Fewell navigates David’s rapidly shifting emotional states with a quiet strength. As he creates an imagined relationship with the hologram of the prisoner, Marissa, he is ever reasonable as he questions his own sanity. As he gets disillusioned and frustrated, he is like a man with his hands to his temples who one might assume is ripping his own hair out, but who is really trying to keep his head from exploding. There is nothing bombastic or blatant about Fewell’s performance; David is all tones and undertones against ever-failing attempts to maintain normality.
The subject of David’s observation, Marissa, is the primary focus of the show. Kate Lane, fresh off her acclaimed performance as the Bride in Oracle Theatre’s Blood Wedding, gives Marissa a vulnerable courage that very quickly enchants David and the audience. It is deliberately unclear at times whether or not David imagines his interactions with Marissa, but any observer of The Observatory will want these interactions to be real. We are asked to like her, to love her, to believe her innocent of any crime, and we do. Kate Lane rides the currents and riptides of captivity with a steely eyed will that won’t allow her captors whatever it is that they want, even if she does not seem to know what that is. Kate Lane is a rare talent whose performance is less about portraying a character and more about becoming someone else. Kate Lane is definitely one to watch.
With a dynamite script by Vincent Truman and amazing performances from Colin Fewell and the incredible Kate Lane, The Observatory should be playing to packed houses every night and extending its run; unfortunately, the house was half-empty the night I saw the show. We who love the theatre are voyeurs of a kind. We love to observe people, and love to observe actors performing the things they have learned by observing people. The Observatory is a show that will appeal to science fiction fans, doomsayers, those strongly on either side of the privacy-versus-safety debate, or anyone who enjoys fantastic theatre. Make sure that you come to a complete stop at every red-light camera as you rush to the theatre to observe The Observatory. DO NOT MISS this show.
3 ½ STARS
(“The Observatory” is presented by The Viable Theater Company through December 18, 2010, at The Charnel House Chicago, 3421 W. Fullerton Ave, Chicago. 773-871-9046.)
* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. The Observatory – Charnel House Chicago – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago