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Is This A Room

"No, it was just that - that day - that week, it was just too much and just to sit back and watch it and think, why do I have this job if I'm just going to sit back and be helpless, and you know, just - it was just. [noises] Oops, sorry. Uhm, yeah. I just thought that that was the final straw. — Reality Winner
TL Thompson, Pete Simpson, Emily Davis (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
On June 3rd, 2017, a young linguist working as an intelligence specialist was arrested at her home in Georgia on charges of leaking classified defense documents to The Intercept . Those documents turned out to be the first publicly available evidence of Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election. The linguist's name was Reality Winner — that's her real name — and she's been in jail ever since. We need not imagine how things went down on that day back in 2017: the tapes were rolling from the moment a team of FBI officers met Winner outside her home, and the transcript of the interrogation — from small talk to confession — is part of the public record.

It's that document that inspired Is This A Room , Tina Satter's theatrical interpretation of Winner's final hours of freedom currently playing at the Vineyard Theatre after a short run at The Kitchen in January. More specifically, that document is the play: Is This A Room is a verbatim re-enactment of that transcript, down to each "um" and stammer and awkward silence.

Satter imaginatively makes dramatic sense of the transcript's trapdoors: notations meaning "unintelligible" and "inaudible" and "overlapping voices." Once the conversation turns to Winner's crime — which involved smuggling a crumpled paper out of the office in a pair of pantyhose — Satter unveils her solution for staging the redacted portions of the transcript, a simultaneously playful and potent multi-sensory silencing.

As an animation of a single document, Is This A Room feels like a refreshingly innovative concept. There's fretful, thoughtful work from Emily Davis in portraying Reality's predicament, especially as her piercing intelligence (Winner speaks Farsi, Dari, and Pashto fluently) chafes against her mounting terror as the gravity of the situation grows more and more apparent. As the investigating officers, the trio of Pete Simpson, TL Thompson, and Becca Blackwell nicely emphasize their wry discomfort in carrying out the interrogation. And there's plenty of taut tension in the air across the bare stage early on as Reality tries her best to defuse tension and kill with kindness, knowing all too well why these guests have come.

But it's still only a single document that captures only a sliver of a story. I wonder if the newsworthiness of Reality Winner's arrest is something of a red herring: Satter clearly cares more about what transcribed words can tell us about the people who said them than about the flashier wallpaper of Trump and Russia and the NSA. Choosing this particular from-the-headlines transcript to bring to life distracts from the theatrical magician work she's trying to pull off. That we learn so little about a woman who can (and does) speak for herself in real life (sometimes on network TV interviews) is a frustration rather than a revelation.

I'm not sure that I know anything more about Reality Winner, her reasons for breaking the law, or her ongoing pursuit of justice than I did after looking at the transcript itself (which I perused before seeing the play). Is This A Room makes a compelling case for reading police transcripts and engaging with the stories that unexplored documents tell, but it doesn't make as convincing an argument for theater's role in bringing those transcripts to life.

Besides the subtle performances from Emily Davis and team, what makes Is This A Room cool is precisely what makes the transcript cool: the sense that there's an extraordinary, unspoken story in there waiting to get out. Even as her story gets told, somehow Reality finds herself redacted in the process.

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Is This A Room
Conceived and Directed by Tina Satter
Cast: Becca Blackwell, Emily Davis, Pete Simpson, and TL Thompson
Scenic Design: Parker Lutz
Costume Design: Envar Chakartash
Lighting Design: Thomas Dunn
Sound Design: Lee Kinney/Sanae Yamada
Original Music: Sanae Yamada
Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street
From 10/3/19; opening 10/21/19; closing 11/24/19 extended to 1/19/20
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 3 and 8; and Sundays at 3
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 10/17 performance

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