PLAY REVIEW: ‘Arlington’ Written by Enda Walsh | Directed by Maggie L. Rogers | Jan. 13–30 at 12th Avenue Arts | Washington Ensemble Theater
The Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET), assembled in 2004 with aspirations to challenge norms of Seattle theater, opens 2023 with a haunting and jarring script by Enda Walsh. What you need to know about Walsh’s play, “Arlington,” is that you are not merely an observer of it.
Think of a number. Any number. Now imagine you’re at the DMV, and you’ve been waiting 20 minutes for that number. A number comes up, not yours. You wait another 20. Another number. Another 20. Another — never yours.
Surely, you wouldn’t stay forever. You wouldn’t find yourself alone in a DMV-esque room for an indefinite (but indefinitely long) amount of time waiting for your number, left to contend with your thoughts under the supervision of a handful of security cameras and an occasional voice to talk with, but the humanity offered by Walsh and directed in full staging by Maggie L. Rogers gives an insight on just what one might do.
You are not merely an observer of “Arlington”: You are an investigator. Neither Walsh nor WET give you answers right away about just exactly where the play is set, how anyone in the story got there, how long they’ve been there and, most importantly, how to change such surrealism as shapes their reality. This element is one that suggests to me that this is a horror script: “Arlington” restricts the amount of information the audience has when the show takes its first breath and doles it out in crumbs to make the atmosphere jarringly strange and inhospitable.
In comparison to the audience, Isla (Kiki Abba), who splits the focus with the Young Man (Ricky Spaulding) during the first act, takes the situation pretty well. Despite her ticket not yet being called, she is wistful and optimistic. Perhaps some of her life force has been bottled away and replaced with a weary smile, but all the audience knows are her wise-cracks and avid conversationalism. The Young Man sits crammed in an office filled with screens, all of which display angles of Isla just a wall away. In comparison to Isla, he’s tense, nervous and susceptible to Isla’s questions, revealing his insecurities. He leans into the microphone, his breathing and words echoing over the audience and Isla as he talks to her; Isla is left to speak out into her empty room in response.
It’s been another hour at the DMV. Your number hasn’t been called yet. If someone talked to you, would you talk back?
You are not merely an observer of “Arlington”: You feel it reverberate in your bones, and it lights aflame before you. Startling you from the humming silence are a few sudden musical inclusions that reveal the most lively moments of Isla and the Young Woman (Amber Tanaka).
Music accompanies Isla’s innermost life and sets the mood, allowing for a type of interaction she hungers for so much that she builds it herself from the pile of clothes in the room throughout the song. When she’s in touch with the Young Man, music follows Isla’s poetic musings and sets a forested backdrop behind her. Through the projections of “Arlington,” we look into Isla’s soul for just a moment, before the blankness of isolation again takes over.
For the Young Woman, music accompanies nearly her entire time on stage. In response to the same isolation, the Young Woman acts entirely differently to Isla. A 20-minute dance-led scene demonstrates the tedium and timelessness of isolation through repetitive and increasingly frantic movement. Tanaka has incredible dance fortitude, and the strength required to perform such a long sequence for multiple nights in a row has to be immense. The sounds of the Young Woman’s isolation range from ambient to discordant, to a cathartic metal selection. I love metal on stage, and this moment was well-earned through the Young Woman’s emotional journey within the room.
How do you keep track of time when you are in a timeless space? What do you think of that grounds you to the world outside?
Then, the tables turn: The third act is what persuaded me to let myself into the universe, to lean in and embrace the horrific puzzle of “Arlington”’s dystopia. An excruciatingly demanding physical performance by Spaulding as the Young Man stirs up anger, a shift from the sadness and confusion produced through Abba’s initial scenes. Walsh chooses then to lay down in words the big answers — the how and what and who and why, why, why. It is then that we become not merely an observer of “Arlington” — but an accomplice to the system that entraps the characters.
“Arlington” has all of the trappings of excellent theater: You hear the actors breathe, you watch a dancer stretch, you feel the lights and sound and you experience the breathtaking immediacy of live art. And, upon a fateful occasion, something happens outside of the game plan. Listen, if you want to see consistently seamless narrative performance, go watch a film. Within risk and immediacy, theater exists at its fieriest and most instinctual.
When the screens in the Young Man’s office showed no display, Spaulding was unshakeable and continued performing and developing a bond with a scene partner he could no longer see. I interpreted the cessation of the numbers as a narrative element when Abba was unbothered. The cast’s belief in the world as it was created around them encouraged my belief in the world as they interacted with it.
Perhaps the bravest moment of the night was the stage manager, Kimberly Le, calling from the booth for a hold so the crew could reestablish the technological aspects that had decided to crap out — the screens, the numbers and, by that point, the sound. The actors were called off stage, and the audience was directed to the lobby. To call a hold during a performance is a very delicate and vital act that requires expertise and courage, and I applaud the crew of “Arlington” for making the right call exactly when it needed to be made.
We all — audience, cast and crew — are not just observers of “Arlington”: We put in the work to make it come alive and still then work to believe in it no matter the horror or obstacle. “Arlington” rewards our continual efforts with mystery, thrill and poetry, and it is upon this mutual agreement that the audience and production collaborate to make performance happen. The rest of the show went off without a hitch, but I am delighted to know that the show I saw was unique and offered a morsel of insight on the process of making something so beautiful.
So, you’ve been waiting at the DMV for hours. Your number hasn’t come up. You’ve found some grounding, had some conversation and now remain twiddling your thumbs as the number shuffles to never quite match yours. Suddenly, the voice of your unseen conversation partner changes. How do you change? Do you change at all?
“Arlington” takes horror and poetry by the wrists and sticks them each in a room alone to ferment into something that grips the heart with the cold fingers of an alternate future.
Read more of the Jan. 25-31, 2023 issue.