Sideshow Theatre Company. By Kathleen Akerley. Directed by Akerley and Megan A. Smith. With Matt Fletcher, Andy Lutz, Clare O'Connor, Paige Smith, Karie Miller. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Imagine, playwright Kathleen Akerley asks you, that American lawmakers come together around a final solution for homelessness in our country. The Rectification Act of, oh, let's say 2015, requires those without homes to be conscripted into the military, leave the country, or else be sent to work centers where they're trained in special skills, to be purchased by the well-meaning wealthy who "actualize" those without by giving them indentured servitude as drivers, cooks, nurses, paralegals.
There are lots of regulations on the relationships between the actualized and their owners, including supposed safeguards against demeaning treatment, but the workers also have enforced silent time, and are required to address their patrons as "Padre." If they're a bad fit, the workers get "recycled" back to their centers. It's a rebirth of American slavery, replete with the patina that the slaves are living better lives this way than they could under their own recognizance.
Akerley's story takes place 20 or so years after the establishment of this program, and focuses on young "rectifees" Leon (Andy Lutz) and Regina (Clare O'Connor), who work as massage therapists for a semi-eccentric named Martin (Matt Fletcher). Martin has decided that he needs a daily double-teaming on the table, because he believes it's facilitating a series of visions he's started having Regina and Leon record for him even as they work his tissue.
The D.C.-based Akerley is also the author of Theories of the Sun, which Sideshow produced in 2010 and which also played with hypotheticals, including writing a mid-career Tennessee Williams and a young Tom Stoppard into the play as characters. Theories won me over, but in Tyrant—jointly staged by Sideshow executive director Megan A. Smith, who co-directed Theories, and by Akerley herself—the point gets lost far too early.
When a piece of speculative futurism like this gets too caught up in establishing the rules of its world, it invites closer questioning. So endless exposition about the clauses of the rectification law and the regulations on the rectifees' behavior only leads one to wonder why a play that seeks to tackle both homelessness and slavery in America avoids considerations of race and mental illness.
Lutz and O'Connor are both attractive, blond Caucasians around the same age as Fletcher—which suggests the casting could be either an intentional choice to take our minds off of race, or to conversely work against our racial expectations (another "rectifee," played by the also-white actor Karie Miller, seems to assume at one point that Leon and Regina are siblings.) If the casting of all white actors was meant to neutralize thoughts of racism's role in the business of servitude, it had the opposite effect on me.
And despite committed work by Lutz, O'Connor and Fletcher—the latter of whom spends the majority of his stage time naked on a massage table, with the other two rubbing him down—Tyrant gets wrapped up in excavating Martin's psyche without finding much in it that's actually interesting or unexpected. After a climax that could be shocking if it wasn't so inevitable, the play fizzles out without a satisfactory ending, happy or otherwise.