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Playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett, who has now written nine of the 12 Radio Hour episodes. has created Stand, which he says is his first attempt at dystopian literature in short form. While many people often draw references to George Orwell’s 1984 in their sociopolitical discussions, it makes more sense to think of today’s show more in the context of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the 1953 novel that is a standout is dystopian literature. As Bennett notes in a recent Facebook post, “From the first scene of the rough draft, I was suddenly aware of how the dichotomy of utopia and dystopia looms over a lot of our stories. What is the life under the Empire in Star Wars, if not dystopic? Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife is cli-fi (science fiction about climate change), but what is the city of Phoenix in that story if not a dystopia?”
Stand is set in 2050 where the United States of America is much different than what it appears now. However, as Stand unfolds, listeners should notice that Bennett’s vision is much closer than we might be comfortable in thinking.
There are six characters in Stand. The main figures are Alicia Mora, Griswell, Russo and Lee (also known as Gilani). Minor characters are the Enforcer and Concerned Citizen.
Jay Perry is the only actor who has participated in every Radio Hour episode. He is joined for this broadcast by Shane Mozaffari and Isabella Reeder. Also notable is that Doug Fabrizio, RadioWest’s host and executive producer, is not directly involved in this latest play, either as narrator or actor.
The broadcast crew includes eFoley by Joe Killian; original music by Dave Evanoff and designed and directed by Cheryl Cluff. Michael Havey mixed the show with help from Kate Hatley and Tim Slover. RadioWest is produced by Benjamin Bombard and Elaine Clark.
The plays opens with the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance. It is exactly as it is since the current version was adopted in 1954 — except for one word “citizens.” The phrase “under God” takes on even greater significance in 2050. Any separation between church and state has been dissolved. The Johnson Amendment, also adopted in 1954, has vanished. It had prohibited churches and charities from engaging in political campaigns. Just last month, efforts to repeal it failed, despite the current president’s pledge in 2017 to repeal it. Incidentally, the first president to close out a speech regularly with the phrase “God Bless America” was Ronald Reagan, according to communication scholars David Domke and Kevin Coe.
Russo carps about citizens and the fact that the president (Van Zomeren) has an “89% unfavorable hanging over him across all demos over 35.” This, Russo says, is nearly as bad as hating God. Mora is a government agent says disapproving the president’s performance is not as dangerous as planning violence against the state. We learn that there is a Resistance movement.
The Tribulation occurred after California seceded from the country, a move that caused a major national food shortage. Crickets became a prominent nutritional source. Griswell rhapsodizes about the insects being tasty, thanks to the orange peels he feeds them. Eating insects though is more popular than what might be assumed. Fried grasshoppers — known in Mexico as chapulines — are a popular snack food at Seattle Mariners games, as an ESPN feature explains. (Incidentally, the actors are using sugar snap pea snacks to create the sound effect.)
In 2050, California still is a desirable destination even if it is no longer a part of the country. The demilitarized zone is set near San Diego. As Griswell notes, “Yes, we have sun here, but over there … the sun seems brighter.” Mora is surprised at the idea of being allowed to vacation in California. Griswell says, “Nobody ‘lets’ us; we go because our loyalty has been tested and proven; we go because we want to. As could you, if…you accept your promotion.” Mora is being promoted to the next level as a government agent.
Mora speaks to the obligations of making democracy as good as it can be. She quotes Jefferson here, “One man with courage is a majority.” It is a significant foreshadowing citation.
Lee (Gilani) enters the story. He has made contact with Mora’s sister, Zariah, who wants to get Mora to a safe place. Throughout Stand, Bennett introduces all sorts of terms that are common place in the America of 2050. Hash-It is the success for to Facebook. Lee describes “smartpaper: an app has just been loaded onto Mora’s comm to filter out their voices but feed any ambient noise into the mic.” Lee is cautious about proceeding with Mora. Her loyalty score is 42 percent, which makes her vulnerable to checks for detecting lies. Citizens are vetted to ensure that they, indeed, are true believers.
Mora is talking to Russo (Incidentally, Jay Perry is in the hallway on a walkie-talkie, realistic effect).
In this critical exchange, rich in foreshadowing, between Lee and Mora, we learn more about the Resistance. And, we discover what a fine line Mora navigates. She says, “Americanism and faith can be mutually exclusive.The breaking of secular law does not damn a person.” Mora adds, “I know the ideals of the Resistance — whistleblower laws, one person one vote’ — [and] despite my choice of career, I know these ideas are not nonsense.”
Lee reminds us of past evils that have returned. He recalls rescuing a 14-year-old girl from her parents’ home, who chained her as part of her reparative therapy after revealing her sexual orientation. “Her father’s a judge and had enough pull to get the Secret Service on my tail, but I’d do it again, that’s who I am. Now share the source of your pride before I’m late.”
Pay close attention to how Bennett weaves in the moral complexities involved here. Mora knows her sense of duty but she also admits that she has no pride. Mora mistook Lee as a thug. Lee tells her she’s scared of her boss.
There are so many wonderful ironic bits that ring with piercing awareness, especially as the action accelerates the narrative pace. Lee mentions how nice it would be to walk leisurely without seeing a “billboard every block that says: ‘Every knee shall bow.'”
Mora reminds Lee that the churches, not the government, pays for the sign. Lee responds, “Yeah, the churches pay for the sign on Pennsylvania Avenue, too,” to which Mora adds, “which technically is not on federal property, Lee.” Mora says, “I’m just saying there’s nuance. I agree it’s gone too far.”
Lee asks Mora not to desert him. Mora wants a little more truth. Lee apparently lied to Russo about serving in the Green Berets before the Agency. The army banned eunuchs as Lee was chemically castrated in Arkansas. Lee clarifies the details: “The measures taken to get me into the Agency were not pretty. Number one, you’re not looking at my real face or real eyes right now, those are gone. I’m not even Middle Eastern. Number two, that Green Beret? He’s alive but … my boss insisted on a VR infodig.” This refers to an interrogation technique carried out while the target is disoriented by various stimuli including virtual reality, drugs and sleep deprivation.
Mora persists that morality is not a fantasy but Lee counters her strongly, “You’re living in la la. You got too much religion.” The dialogue about terrorism is stark and dark. Mora tells Lee, “Because I care if my countrymen are nuked?! If the Calis die from fallout? What about that, huh? California and New England would be poisoned under her plan, despite having nothing to do this.”
Lee does not recoil: “They have everything to do with this! They literally left us in the dust. Have you been to the Great Plains, lately? The Calis and their Japanese pals know what happens to shopkeepers who fly a rainbow flag.”
Surveillance is inescapable and as pernicious as can be imagined. Russo has been trailing Mora for a long time (“I put a trace in your food at the Christmas party. No one told me to, I just like following you.”) Russo demands Mora shoots Lee.
Mora argues for due process: “No one shoot. Lee, Russo is an officer of the law and I’m duty-bound to protect him. Russo, this man is a citizen of the United States.” As for Lee, “If we’re going to arrest him, he should have his rights read and not be threatened.”
Lee is dead and now as Russo dies, Mora recites verses from Psalm 51: “Be merciful to me, O God, because of your constant love. Because of your great mercy, wipe away my sins. Wash away all my evil…” Bennett selects the most apt Psalm. King David had composed the Psalm as a profound act of contrition, after Nathan the prophet had chastised him for committing adultery with Bathsheba, and murdering her husband to cover his sins. Of the seven Psalms of penitence, the one Mora invokes is the most sincere and passionate expression of grief.
Mora confronts Griswell, who believes it is about his visits to California. Mora calls out Griswell as a predator: “I know, Sir, about your so-called mistresses, and I can’t un-know; I can’t say the Pledge for you on Monday; I can’t let you prey on one woman more.”
Griswell says all of us have to pretend. “We have to bury our truest selves — and the deeper we work within the system, the deeper we have to bury the truth.”
It is now Griswell who quotes Jefferson: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
It’s a line from a letter Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1816, a renewal of their lifelong commitment to realizing the fruits of the American revolution. It is worth noting Adams reply:”May we be ‘a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism’! ‘What a colossus shall we be’! But will it not be of brass, iron and clay? Your taste is judicious in liking better the dreams of the future than the history of the past. Upon this principle I prophesy that you and I shall soon meet and be better friends than ever.”
The Radio Hour Series has been one of the most intriguing collaborations in the local theatrical scene, pairing Plan-B Theatre and RadioWest. What has kept the series vital and fresh is the experimental approach taken. Stand was the series’ first science fiction thriller and Bennett, who has perfected the craft of developing a compact radio drama, excels at every turn.
As with all of Bennett’s plays, Stand brings in deep intellectual roots while making the characters credible, realistic and interesting. His specific references to Jefferson, the Pledge of Allegiance and to the exemplar of penitential psalms from The Bible are essential to understanding the thematic foundations of the play. His dystopia story encompasses a future America that has given in ironically to the temptations of fundamentalist rule by absolute obligation to an overarching religious belief. There is the sense of inevitability, if one considers the evolution of the notion of a “nation under One God.”
If we want to avoid becoming the United States of America that is manifested in Stand, just barely more than three decades in the future, it is worthwhile to think about our history and the beliefs of those who have sought in their own selfish ways to confront and reconcile the events they see as artifacts of the country’s original sin. Stand invites a vigorous contemplation not only of the current political scene but of the persistent perverted intermingling of faith and civic duties and expectations.
The cast shaped the pulsating energy suited to the story’s ever urgent nature. Reeder sets the tone ideally as Mora, bringing out the moral conflicts in a lucid portrayal. Mozaffari is outstanding as Lee (Gilani). And, Perry, the penultimate veteran actor of the series, is wickedly delightful as Russo and Griswell. Evanoff’s music and Cluff’s sound design put the crowning touches on a drama that maximizes the always sensational spontaneity of the radio medium.