On a stark, sparsely furnished stage rendered otherworldly by smoky lighting effects, a young woman face-down at a table regains consciousness and takes in her surroundings. She jumps up and begins searching frantically for listening devices, shouting blasphemies at the ceiling to see if her words will evoke any response from her captors. So begins Meek, a drama by the up-and-coming young English playwright Penelope Skinner (Fucked, Eigengrau, The Village Bike, Linda) that was first performed at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and had its US premiere last weekend at the Denizen Theatre, New Paltz’s black-box venue in the Water Street Market. The Seattle Public Theater’s Kelly Kitchens directs this production, which runs Wednesdays through Sundays until September 1.
It’s quite a coup for Denizen to get to introduce this terrifyingly timely play to American audiences. Meek takes place in a dystopia in which a misogynist Christian theocracy monitors and controls the actions of its citizens. If this sounds a lot like Gilead, the world of Margaret Atwood’s groundbreaking 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale and its current hit Hulu TV series, you’re right. One significant difference between the two societies is that Meek depicts its resistance movement as empowered by social media. The imprisoned and disappeared here rely on sustaining the interest of random strangers via the uncontrollable Internet to save them from the whims of the state. As in the gladiator pits of ancient Rome, getting enough electronic “likes” to outweigh the thumbs-down can be a matter of life and death.
Brittany Proia, one of the triumvirate of artistic directors at Denizen, stars as Irene, the protagonist who has been jailed for a song that she wrote and performed in a nightclub. She’s baffled, because it was a straightforward heartbreak ballad about being dumped by her lover, not an anthem of political protest or satire. Much of the first third of the play, when it isn’t worldbuilding, focuses on Irene’s efforts to ascertain exactly why she has been targeted. That worldbuilding, incidentally, is one of the playwright’s strongest suits, plying terse and economical language to paint a vivid picture of the society that thrives outside Irene’s cell.
Irene has two regular visitors: Anna, her best friend since childhood, played by Aidan Koehler, and Gudrun, her attorney, played by Crystal Tweed. These three women are the only characters we ever see onstage, although a fourth, Anna’s husband in a loveless arranged marriage, becomes a looming presence. Having thoroughly embraced at least the outward demonstrations of piety required by the religious regime, Anna is timid where Irene is bold, and feels that she can do little for her friend without her husband’s sanction. She sees her role as trying to save Irene by counseling cooperation with her captors. Cool, competent Gudrun, by contrast, is secretly a Secularist, with a subversive agenda that may transcend her concern for her client’s welfare. Not being entirely sure about the nature of this professional dynamic during Gudrun and Irene’s interactions is one of the keener pleasures of Meek’s developing narrative.
The middle section of the play is by far its strongest, the dialogue evoking many classic works of page and stage that preceded it. Besides the obvious Handmaid’s Tale parallels, Anna’s fear of being overheard wherever she goes conjures up the Thought Police of Orwell’s 1984, while the vagueness of the charges against Irene is decidedly Kafkaesque. There’s an extended philosophical discussion of the pros and cons of self-sacrifice for a cause that could have been lifted right out of Shaw’s Saint Joan. And the tension between self-righteous Anna and her offstage husband, though delivered secondhand, may remind you of the many layers of ulterior motives at play in Elizabeth Proctor’s moral challenge to her husband John in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
The final section of Meek is less satisfying, largely because two major plot twists are too heavily foreshadowed to come as the surprises they seem intended to be, letting considerable air out of the tires of a vehicle that had previously maintained solid momentum. And, at the preview performance, the histrionics of a long, significant soliloquy – happening far too close to the end to divulge which character (and therefore which actor) delivered it without being spoilery – simply failed to convince.
Still, the positives outweigh the negatives in this production of Meek. It’s certainly thought-provoking, and the specter it raises of a rigidly patriarchal fundamentalist society lurking on the horizon will unsettle anyone who follows current political events.
Meek by Penelope Skinner
Wednesday-Saturday 8 p.m./Sunday 2 p.m., $28/$24/$15/$5
Water Street Market, New Paltz