Since I’ve made it my mission to go see as many plays as I can this year, I have often gone into theatres without knowing what the play is about. I knew this show had something to do with science fiction (based almost entirely on the poster), but I didn’t know what kind of science fiction it was.
Turns out it’s a satire about the future of the United States. “Satire” is, to be fair, pretty loose — there’s some very heart-wrenching moments in the show, and also some incredibly comedic moments.
Also, I never thought I would enjoy a play about Glenn Beck so much. Some time ago, I had a coworker who told me, first as a joke and then with increasingly insistent seriousness, that I should write/direct a musical about the Tea Bag Party. I am so revolted by this new party’s selfishness, pettiness, racism, sexism, homophobia, fact-ignoring, fear-mongering, and general snooty, eye-rolling, quietly simmering hatred that I didn’t even want to touch them as a subject, for fear of accidentally justifying their existence somehow (you know, like how violent video games are supposed to somehow make children more violent). So when I walked into the theatre and saw a print-out of Glenn Beck’s simpering, dough-like face attached to one of the walls, I had just the teensiest moment of panic. This play could easily be too accommodating to either side of this ridiculous political argument, or it could be too much of a spoof, to the point that it becomes the dreaded liberal propaganda that we’re always accused of pushing.
To my great relief, the play was not that. In fact, it’s one of the better plays I’ve seen so far this year. Per the show’s website: “Her Mother Was Imagination is a bold new culture-bending play by local playwright Elizabeth Heffron, directed by Ellie McKay. This edgy satire explores a future society who are seemingly confined to a massive sky-scraping tower living safely above a treacherous and inhospitable earth terrain below. This almost Orwellian life in the tower is both savage and decadent and at times an opulent spectacle in this fantastical new world order.” There’s actually a lot of other art attached to the project, AND, in a bold yet classically Seattle liberal move, the lights for the show were hooked up to generators fueled by bicyclists. So the play was lit entirely by a few cyclists hanging out in Annex’s bar area. As part of an immersive theatre piece, Heffron has created an immersive community of art and activists that the audience walks into for the show. It’s a fantastic idea, and well executed.
The show itself is quite good, as well. While there are some glimpses of life on the outside (mainly through a courier service referred to as “Brownshorts”), and hints that some kind of biochemical weapon has destroyed the landscape and forced a significant number of the population to live indoors, most of the play takes place on a skyscraper’s floor 21, and its inhabitants — who, yes, live there full-time. One can be transferred, but that seems rare. Value is assigned to how high up the tower one lives, of course, so the top several floors are inhabited by “spiffs”, with the top floor reserved for the Elders (yes, there’s several bits and pieces inspired by the nastier aspects of Mormonism). Value is also assigned by how industrious the floor is — floor 21, being the entertainment floor, is pressured to come up with new and inventive pageant plays constantly, as well as make a side business of farming gerbils for food (to prove they have “entrepreneurial spirit”, as one character early on explains). Per a pageant play featuring this troupe at the start of the show, Glenn Beck and select few of his cronies climbed to the top of this tower, with several of their mindless followers joining them on lower levels, and sealed the place off to the outside world. Their premise, of course, is that these “Elders” were going to focus on praying for the salvation of their country, but it is obviously a move born of cowardice. In the present time of the play, the Elders have aged to 110 years, and are kept alive by farming tissue from their subordinates, which is then fed directly into their systems through tubes (these scenes were done behind a screen, almost as though the Elders were marionettes, and it was beautifully grotesque). Meanwhile, in a move reminiscent of the king in “Braveheart,” the Elders have declared that at each woman’s 18th birthday, she will lose her virginity to an Elder, as part of God’s ordained plan. The three main characters, all sisters, represent different aspects, with two of them of course falling into the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. One sister is pregnant from the experience, and gives birth over the course of the play; however, her baby has tested negative for a specific gene, probably used by the elders (so we have shades of both Soylent Green and eugenics), and she is forced to give him up. The other sister has a nurse smuggle birth control so she can avoid the experience, and use her feminine wiles to get favors from upstairs (which always backfires).
In the middle of this is Pearl, almost 18 (raped just before her birthday, against the rules), who often plays leading roles in the pageants and dutifully tends her gerbil farm. Her and her sisters’ mother, Lulu, was tossed out of the tower for revolutionary, green- and womyn-centric ideas, although Lulu had been the best pageant writer before her downfall. Lulu is often heard in the background, through a hand crank radio or from the outside, protesting the patriarchy and bastardized Christianity that drives the tower communities. Pearl secretly holds her mother in great esteem, and in Act II leaves the tower to find her — only to be disappointed. But she sticks with her mother and together they storm the towers and tear down the feudal society put in place.
Naturally, I have a couple of problems with the play, although I will say these qualms are really, really minor. Act I was stronger than Act II. I felt that, after Pearl left the tower, time went by too fast — the Revolution, led by Lulu, came out of nowhere. The scenes surrounding the literal fall of the towers — except for the very last one, featuring the devoted Christian sister — were weak, emotionally empty, compared to the rest of the play, but I think that’s mainly because the events happened too fast and didn’t seem tied to anything, unlike the rest of the play. Granted, the show was about 2.5 hours long, so they had to speed things up just a little to get the audience out in a reasonable amount of time, but I think there were other bits that could have been cut or shortened to allow for more scenes revolving around the end of the show and the fall of the dominant culture.
Also, I have a problem with what Lulu represents. There was only one mention, at the very end of the show, that maybe she wasn’t any better than the Elders perched high in the tower, and I was interested in that. But, honestly, I’m not sure what she was really supposed to represent. She was a generalized opposition to the tower, but she was too general. Mostly she talked about returning to the womb, thinking “circle” instead of “square” (as in “circle of life” instead of a linear timeline), and returning to the earth (although in a land ravaged by plague, I’m not really sure why one would think that was a good idea). I suppose she was supposed to be the polar opposite, a totally Liberal person, but … well, I guess she was too Pacific Northwest Liberal for me, and I don’t think that nature-centric, mystical female-centric liberalism is ACTUALLY the kind of opposition that would storm a tower and tear down the phallic hegemony (although a lot of those 2nd wave feminists might). And, as the antidote to feudalism, she just didn’t work. I mean, if you look at history, what has pulled civilization out of the dark ages, more than once, has been a revolution in knowledge. The biggest example, of course, is the Renaissance — when knights started bringing back lost texts from Greek philosophers, long ignored by Catholicism, Western culture started changing radically. It became more secular, art was more inspired by new ideas, and the scientific revolution really kicked off. Suddenly, the world wasn’t about the Pope, and Jesus, and being Saved. This world, in this play, has returned to the ideas of Salvation and the Second Coming, and I would have liked to see more of an allegory with science and communication and knowledge — real knowledge, not this mystical airy-fairy crap — coming in to take down the dictators. Or, I would have liked to see more of how Lulu was too similar to the Elders, how one mystical culture replacing another happens, but is not for the good. Lulu was so built up as an escape, and then shown to be sick and failing, but not really demonstrated as actually the ultimate good, or actually just another form of evil. There were hints in both directions and I’m not sure where the playwright fell on the subject.
That said, I loved this play. The first act by itself is worth the cost of a ticket, and a lot of the second act is good. The concept is great. Even if there were no other art projects surrounding it, even if the lights had fed off the city’s power grid and not cyclists in the bar/lounge, I would say it succeeded in making its point. And I love stories that just immerse you in the culture and expect you to catch up (A Clockwork Orange being a prime example). So its absolutely worth seeing as a story that you can piece together as its happening.