Lauren Quinlan is a Chicago-based writer, critic, and dramaturg, currently earning her BFA in Dramaturgy/Criticism from The Theatre School at DePaul University. She has worked on productions at Northlight Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre Company, and The Theatre School.
Pictured: (left to right) Norm Woodel and Evan Linder, Photo by Evan Hanover.
Review: SCAPEGOAT; OR (WHY THE DEVIL ALWAYS LOVED US) at The New Colony
By Lauren Quinlan
Political and legal dramas dominate the entertainment landscape these days. Some seek to cast a rosy glow over our institutions and yearn for the American ideal of irreproachable truth. Others present a darker, and perhaps more realistic view of these supreme monoliths of society, where the scandals and intrigue seen in fiction almost match the calamity that dominates America’s current cultural moment.
SCAPEGOAT, written by Connor McNamara and directed by Kristina Valada-Viars at The New Colony, works through a mixture of these qualities, ultimately presenting an overstuffed examination of a witch hunt across party lines. In the world of the Porter family versus the Religious Freedom Caucus — a refraction of the world we live in — no one is beyond reproach, and they must come to terms with what that means for them.
The play begins with a conversation between members of the Caucus, trying to get their individual beliefs out at warp speed. McNamara’s script and Valada-Viars’ pacing adopt a similar rhythm. Characters appear and relationships solidify before I can even realize what is going on. The connection between Ieza and John (Cassidy Slaughter-Mason and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr.) feels the most compelling and humanizing, but I only realize this about halfway through when the production allows for a moment of breath. While this is a realistic speed for the rapid pace of politics, it does a disservice to the production.
The play centers on the controversial Religious Freedom Bill, modeled after the real-life Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the desire of the group in support of the bill to renounce Senator Anse Porter (Norm Woodel) based on his subscription to Satanic beliefs. What McNamara examines is juicy and inherently theatrical, but the details of such a convoluted topic were lost in Valada-Viars’ relentless race to the finish. It is difficult to care about the bill the Caucus is proposing when I have only a vague idea of what it entails.
Part of this problem stems from the play attempting to cover too many topics. In its two-hour run time, SCAPEGOAT touches on the fraught nature of parent-child relationships, the limits of personal freedom, the unclear edges of religion and spirituality, and the sexism and xenophobia woven into the fabric of American political dogma. These ideas, absorbing on their own, do not work well together, creating more of a headache than an even debate.
The production shines in its moments of focus, particularly its examination of the xenophobic undertones of the Religious Freedom Bill. In one of the final moments, Margaret (Echaka Agba) says that she feels like she has “just woken up.” in light of the Religious Freedom Bill. I imagine several people in the audience felt the same way – some people for their entire lives, and others since the morning of November 9th, 2016.
So, who is the scapegoat? McNamara and Valada-Viars leave it unclear. Is it Anse? The Religious Freedom Caucus? The bill itself? Or is it something more conceptual, like the framework of xenophobia or fear. Maybe it lies in the portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, the purpose of which John Wilson’s scenic design leaves unclear. The ritual of finding a scapegoat is in itself a witch hunt, and serves as a way to placate, as Margaret puts it, “a nation distracted from its goals.” Valada-Viars’ production takes a long time to get at what it wants to say, but the punch is something that needs to be voiced, no matter how uncomfortable the impact may be.
SCAPEGOAT; (OR WHY THE DEVIL NEVER LOVED US) runs through May 7th. For more information visit thenewcolony.org.