Do you ever get that prickly feeling, when you're scrolling through the daily news, that the world is broken and keeps getting worse? That headline by headline, crisis by crisis, we're on a train hurtling toward catastrophe and someone — anyone — should throw the emergency brake? What would you do?
In 2011, the Libyan revolution against Col. Moammar Gadhafi got an unlikely hero: a balding, middle-aged, boring-on-the-outside middle manager at the state oil company named Mahdi Ziu. During the first, desperate days of the pro-democracy uprising, while demonstrators were being beaten and shot trying to storm the Katiba compound (Gadhafi’s last stand in Benghazi), Ziu quietly turned his car into a bomb and, without telling his family or friends, drove off on a suicide mission to blow apart the gates.
As Guardian correspondent Chris McGreal wrote in a dispatch from Libya at the time, nobody saw that one coming: “Ziu’s attack may have saved Libya’s revolution.”
Ziu instantly became a historical cipher. He’d gone down in history for his death at the Katiba. But until that day, his life wasn’t about the Katiba. Which opens some obvious questions: What was it about? What led him quietly, unexpectedly up to that moment?
James Fritz’s quietly disquieting 2015 play “Parliament Square” (which he, to the envy of playwrights everywhere, banged out in just a few days, submitted for a prestigious prize from the Royal Court Theatre, then had the gall to win) asks similar questions.
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It revolves around the life and conscience of Kat, a young mother and wife who feels a desperate need to do something.
You might sympathize. Do you ever get that prickly feeling, when you’re scrolling through the daily news, that the world is broken and keeps getting worse? That headline by headline, crisis by crisis, we’re on a train hurtling toward catastrophe and someone — anyone — should throw the emergency brake?
If not you, who? If not now, when?
Kat feels similar pricks of conscience — but kicks against them — until she wakes up one gloomy British morning, finally ready to act on them.
Or almost ready.
The first third of “Parliament Square” is a study in the hesitation of a would-be martyr. It begins with the bleeping of Kat’s alarm clock — which, in an ominous gesture of sonic foreshadowing by Pony World Theatre, sounds suspiciously like the bleeping of a hospital heart monitor.
Kat immediately begins negotiating with herself. At every step of the way between her pillow and Parliament Square, Kat (Caitlin Macy-Beckwith) finds excuses to delay The Big Moment That Will Change the World. Her determined, radicalized conscience (Imani Woodley) is having none of it, insisting “they” keep pushing forward. “Fifteen seconds,” her conscience says. “That’s all you have to get through … you’re a [expletive] amazing woman.”
But who wouldn’t side with the foot-dragging, quotidian version of Kat? Her bed is warm. She’ll miss her adoring lump of a husband (Andrew Shanks). And what about her infant daughter Jo? Then the subway is nauseatingly stuffy. And now it’s raining and cold outside. What’s the point? Maybe she should just go home and write a rousing speech instead…
Conscience wins. “Fifteen seconds,” she repeats. “The lighter. Top pocket. Take it out.”
To say what happens next would reveal too much, but the U.S. premiere of “Parliament Square,” directed by Sann Hall (with assistance from Carter Rodriquez), feels both plainly straightforward and hyper-relevant. No one thing about it (performance, design, text) will inspire you to shout from the rooftops. But it thrums with a tense undercurrent of desire for change. And to be that change.
The cast gives a mostly muted performance, despite the occasional howls of physical or psychological pain. (Macy-Beckwith does a particularly good job of playing the winces and sharp in-breaths of someone suffering from major wounds.) But that fits the play’s contemporary mood — it feels like the confusing fjord of an upwardly-mobile-but-politically-minded friend’s Facebook feed, navigating between the cool cliffs of humdrummery (look at the cupcakes for little Judy’s birthday! Can you believe she’s already in middle school!?!) and hot emergency (fascism is here and we must act — you’re either with us or you’re not).
Fritz wisely slides past any granular details about what, exactly, Kat is protesting. She drops a few contemporary-lefty hints (sympathy for the homeless, exasperated tolerance for evangelical Christians), but she could be anyone. Macy-Beckwith plays her that way — as someone with a comfortable life, but uncomfortable in her comfort while knowing the wider world is sliding into grim chaos.
The ambitious set, designed by Lex Marcos, succinctly reflects this conflict between domestic calm and danger — and how one can live within the other. Two-thirds of the upstage wall resembles the middle portion of a large, gray feather: taut, carefully strung yarn that looks invitingly soft, like you could comfortably collapse into it. The other third looks like a biological snarl of crochet suspended from the ceiling: some bits resemble doilies, others scar tissue or dangling intestines. (If you’re familiar with local artist Mandy Greer, you’ll instantly recognize that homey-yet-scary aesthetic. She’s credited in the program.) On the floor: an intricately painted gray-scale map of some city (presumably London) with a winding river cutting through it.
What should we make of all this? “Parliament Square” isn’t rousing theater, but it’s troubling theater — not unlike an episode of “Black Mirror,” where the quietude (gray, drizzle, cellphones) drapes an ominous, gauzy blanket over real-world horror (poverty, riots, desperation). Kat isn’t nearly as close to the bloodshed as Mahdi Ziu, but she still feels it — or feels herself feeling it. But if you find yourself fumbling for a lighter in your top pocket at Parliament Square, will that difference even matter?
What should Kat die for? A troubled world where she could live to raise her daughter and perish of natural causes? Or the potential for a better world that will include at least one confirmed motherless child? Which prick of conscience should win?
Jesus summed it up well during his revelation to St. Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9:5: “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
I couldn’t agree more, Lord. But the question still stands: When? How? “Parliament Square” doesn’t have the answers, either. But it artfully resurfaces the chilling questions.
“Parliament Square” by James Fritz. Through Nov. 17; Pony World Theatre at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$20; 800-838-3006, ponyworld.org.