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As gun violence continues to proliferate on American stages, it’s inevitable that some plays about the topic will be better than others, and that some will be written by curious Europeans. At least when two Swedish dramatists wrote plays recently seen on area stages, they were drawing on the 2011 shooting that killed 77 in Norway, and more generically on school shootings. What David Grieg—a prolific Scottish playwright whose works have twice toured to Shakespeare Theatre—is doing is different. This is a playwright who wrote a fascinating sequel to Macbeth (Dunsinane) and the West End adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In The Events, Grieg is exploring the fragile mind of a depressed, working class American mass shooter, and he’s in over his head.
The perpetrator in The Events is a white supremacist fascinated with “aboriginal” cultures who repeatedly refers to Native Americans in the most polite and politically correct lingo.
“Imagine a boy, an aboriginal boy,” the play begins. “He is standing on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay just at the very moment three ships from England are sailing up the long grey waters. … If you could go back in time and speak to that boy, what would you do? You would stand on the rock, and point to the ships and say, ‘Kill them, kill them all.’”
Grieg—and/or his perpetrator—equates native people fighting against colonists to a present day white supremacist shooting immigrants. Every time the shooter says “aboriginal” with reverence, you shudder and wonder how much time Grieg spent with future Middle American Trump supporters.
The play debuted at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013 and has since been performed throughout the Anglophone world. Director Colin Hovde says the script allows for a number of “fill-in-the-blank changes” to localize the action, so that explains the references to the Washington Post Style section and the Chesapeake Bay.
(Quick fact check: There were two ships from England that sailed up the Chesapeake to colonize Maryland, not three. If Hovde was at liberty to sub-in a local body of water, he might as well give a shout out to the Ark and the Dove.)
Despite the play’s unbelievable specifics, the structure and tone of The Events cohere well. It’s still a haunting play, and Theater Alliance’s stark set with surround sound is beautifully designed.
Regina Aquino stars as Claire, a minister who is conducting a community center choir when a shooter commands everyone “who looks like they belong here” to leave. She survives, and in the aftermath, goes around town interviewing people in an effort to divine the shooter’s motive. It’s a futile search that erodes her own well being, to the point that she becomes no more stable than the shooter.
Josh Adams portrays the perpetrator, and through subtle changes in costumes and inflection, all the characters Claire interviews. Some of Adams’ transformations are believable, including the boy’s father and the politician whose white supremacist “party” the shooter recently joined. Others, especially Claire’s partner, a lesbian yurt builder, are not.
“But you build yurts. You can do that anywhere,” Claire implores, when asking if they can move closer to the California jail where the shooter is imprisoned. Despite the play’s absurdities, Aquino’s performance is affecting and heartfelt, although she doesn’t come off as a woman of faith past or present. Other productions refer to Claire as a priest rather than a minister and have the actress playing her wear a collar; at Theatre Alliance, she wears a drab cardigan and a grungy skirt with cargo pockets.
Onstage along with Adams and Aquino are nine singers who at times serve as Claire’s literal choir and at other moments morph into a Greek chorus. They sing “Stand By Me,” Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” and “How Great Thou Art.” It’s a genius construction, really, a testimony to a skilled playwright who is simply better at conjuring fantasy worlds than commenting on another country’s real horrors.
To Oct. 17 at 2020 Shannon Place SE. $35–$40. (202) 241-2539. theateralliance.com.