Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Tea Party can be confusing, off-putting, profane and violent (blood will be spilt, guns will be fired, cruelty will be inflicted)–but somehow still manages to be a hell of a lot of dark fun.
Much of the credit for making this often disturbing evening of theatre enjoyable lies with the cast, most of whom belong to a collective of artists who call themselves One Of Our Own. Their familiarity with each other–and the joy they take in inhabiting their characters–gives Tea Party a sense of harmony and rhythm that put me in mind of a tight band playing challenging music that, despite occasional atonality or surprising syncopation, still manages to catch your ear.
The story begins with a prisoner named Sarah (Livia Gomes Demarchi) being interrogated by an agent (Cassidy Brown) of some unnamed government organization. Well, perhaps not interrogated so much as debated, for the agent seems to want to understand the political philosophy held by Sarah, who is allegedly responsible for a terrorist action that resulted in multiple deaths and significant property damage. Sarah seems to have adopted a philosophy similar to one suggested by the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky in the film Manufacturing Consent: that there is an elite power structure that uses the media and consumerism to keep the masses in a state of submission and distraction so they won't be tempted to try and overturn that power structure.
Tea Party is a collection of scenes that build off those first moments between Sarah and the agent and lead us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of absolute power corrupting absolutely. The debate between the agent and Sarah shifts to a later scene in which an Analyst (Isabel Anne Torres) conducts something more akin to an interrogation. In Dahlquist's sharply written text, the questioning as times takes a somewhat snarky tone: "Sorry you're uncomfortable. That's the point of course, but I can still be sorry." Then, a moment later: "Can I ask you something? Sure I can." It's a creepy (and effective) way of reminding the prisoner (and the audience) of who's really in charge.
Tea Party is filled with moments like this, moments of subtle cruelty, and displays of potency–all delivered in a slightly skewed structure that keeps the audience both on their toes, and also a little off-balance. Dahlquist's shifting of time and repeating of scenes (with slight variations) will have you guessing about what's really going on–something that, in our current political climate, should have a deafening ring of familiarity.
Tea Party runs through March 19, 2023, at The Rueff, the black box space at American Conservatory Theatre's Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.. Tickets are $20-$50. For tickets and information, please visit www.erinmerritt.com/tea-party.