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Writer-performer Gwydion Suilebhan’s website lists nine plays and a half-dozen film projects among his credits. That’s an odd resume for a guy whose new show gradually reveals itself as a jeremiad on the dangers of storytelling. Or rather, on the unchecked proliferation of stories made possible by modern technology.
Naturally, he’s talking about the printing press.
“Books,” Suilebhan rails, “are selfish.” In the oral tradition, replication without variation was almost impossible. But once innumerable copies indistinguishable from the original “text” could be made, an element of humanity was lost. Meanwhile, a more resilient feature of humankind —our insatiable appetite for narrative—makes us susceptible to manipulation and falsehood.
…or something like that. Less a story than a sermon (Suilebhan’s word), Transmission introduces more provocative notions in its 45-minute first half than many theater companies manage in a season. In the dexterity with which it hopscotches from Big Thought to Big Thought, it recalls a Mike Daisey monologue: Ideas are like viruses! Railroads were the world’s first high-speed data network! Three examples are always better than two!
As with Daisey’s output, you may find yourself wondering afterwards whether you were persuaded on substance or merely dazzled by how good Suilebhan talks. (Daisey uses only an outline, Suilebhan is performing from a full script.) But even a response like that serves Suilebhan’s point, which boils down to brush up your skepticism. Only the way he says it is better: Suspend Your Belief.
The wizardry isn’t solely rhetorical. Sound designer Eric Shimelonis, scenic designer Jacy Barber, and “experience and lighting designer” Colin K. Bills have transformed the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lab II black box space into an inviting recreation of a 1930s living room, one ringed with console-style radios that echo and chime in thrilling sequence when Shimelonis waves his magic wand.
Suilebhan chose this period with care: It is the moment when replication-absent-variation became globally instantaneous. As an example of the how these devices focused the attention of the world, you hear a snippet of Joe Louis’ 1938 rematch against German heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling, when the Brown Bomber knocked out a man whom the Nazis had promoted (against his will) as an example of their genetic supremacy. Seventy thousand people witnessed it at Yankee Stadium, but 70 million heard the broadcast. Others have used Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio play from that same year to address similar themes, and that’s probably a more cautionary example: Welles crafted his fiction so expertly that the fear and suffering it wrought were real.
In Transmission’s second half, performance gives way to a discussion group wherein you’re encouraged to unpack what you’ve just experienced with the person in the armchair or the tasteful settee next to you. It’s a tribute to Suilebhan and his collaborators’ showmanship up to this point that the latter portion doesn’t end up feeling like a pretentious and infuriating circle jerk, as participatory theater shows have what Don Cheadle in Out of Sight would call “a high potentiality” to do. Or didn’t, at any rate—the quality of your experience is likely to hinge on the quality of your neighbors, but that’s a risk you take attending any play. You should know going in that you’ll be asked to share some fairly personal stuff in that small room. Those who prize their right to remain silent should direct their attention elsewhere. But if you’re nostalgic for steam locomotives, or your 400-level media theory class, and you fear no stranger-danger, your odds of a rewarding evening are better than fair.
1333 H St. NE. $15–$30. (202) 399-7993. atlasarts.org.