By Marvis Osweri
The State is one of those plays where you don’t know what to expect. Literally. Even the writer Alexander Manuiloff has no clue how the performance will unfold. See, unlike traditional plays with a cast of actors and a director, the plot device in The State is simply the text. That and the unsuspecting, but nonetheless curious, audience drives the performance forward.
Based partly on the true story of Plamen Goranov – a Varna native that set himself on fire in political protest, the writer imagines Plamen’s last thoughts. And communicates them to the audience in the form of letters.
Neat envelope stacks sit in a letterbox glued (or otherwise fixed) onto a desk. Beneath the desk is a metallic trash can. These are the only props. A microphone hangs above the minimal set expertly highlighted by an overhead light. Drawing all the audience’s focus, whose seats happen to be arranged in a circle with the set at the centre instead of the regular auditorium seating, on that letterbox.
Juxtaposed against Plamen’s emotional last words are crisp statements about the Performance, which this reviewer took to be an analogy for the government, but which could also very well have referred to the actual performance of the State…or the performance of Plamen setting himself on fire.
The State is not an interactive play. There is no lead influence. There are no rules. Rather it’s an active play. With an unlimited number of iterations, as varied as the audiences are bound to be. Alexander Manuiloff has staged The State in over 20 cities, and the only common thread is the audience’s curiosity.
Of course, it’s hard to believe Alexander really just lets the audience be the actors. What’s the longest its ever taken before curiosity wins and someone approaches the desk? 12 minutes! And after that first note is read, the rest have to be read as well!
Post-show, some theatregoers weren’t so convinced that the initial handful that approached the set were not plants, audience members whose role was to move the plot along. And I think therein lies the ingenuity of The State; it leaves you uncertain…tempted for a 2nd or 3rd viewing…just to see the differences, subtle or not, that come about from the varying audience/actors.
A clever analogy for democracy and politics, on the whole, no two governments, however similar, are exactly alike.
For Alexander, each showing is a different play in itself. The props remain the same…Plamen’s story doesn’t change…but the State?
The State is never the same.