Meditations on Nationalism – Avoid A Void
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
“Love is stronger than hate.” “Make love, not war.” “Love TRUMPS hate.” Printed over the beautiful colors of the rainbow flag, spray painted on the pavement of North Avenue next to images of Black children playing, on a shiny poster at the entrance to the Universalist Church. It’s such a soothing thought. If you could just love enough, it would be possible to burn hate away by the force, like radiation burning cancer from the body. But the body politic isn’t the same, and hate knows all about love. This has never been more clear then while watching the excellent Meditations on Nationalism from director Ryan Clark and composer Patrick Alexander, a devised work by Quarry Theatre, up this past weekend.
In vignettes that span a time frame from the Nazi regime to the Trail of Tears to Pol Pot to MAGA, we are hit with it, over and over again. Hate understands love, it invokes and perverts it. It calls up the nostalgia of family, the yearning for more simple, cooperative times, the comfort of religion, the hunger for community. The beast uses these things as a cloak, a ratty wolfskin that grows thinner by the minute, until it’s not even bothering to hide. It doesn’t have to. By that time, it has convinced you that, not only is the wolf not dangerous, but YOU have nothing to fear, anyway. YOU are not the sheep. Not anymore. Because now, YOU can be wolves, too.
If you’ve never seen this kind of political theater before, it might strike you as stark, or broad. The figures move in and out of shadow. The stories are as simple to follow as a fairy tale, if a great deal darker (though, you know, some fairy tales). It’s scary, and agitating, and absolutely necessary. Laura Holland, Nora Long, Alexander Scally, and Andrew Wilkin function together as a sort of organism, revealing the massive amount of workshopping this piece most likely went through. They engage breathlessly, bravely, with the material, they drive it forward and forward and forward like a freight train. They have moments of individual brilliance, to be certain. Holland delivers a laser-focused, perfectly modulated Fuehrer speech. Scally shows laudable versatility, portraying a war-brutalized Muslim man from post-Communist Yugoslavia that broke my heart while only minutes before doing a jovial Andrew Jackson that made me want to break his face. But it is in the ensemble that Clark curates and nurtures this work, pulling stunning, emotional imagery out of the bodies on stage. I especially liked a moment where red, cascading scarves stand in for everything you care about, stolen, and another where the innocence of a crayoned scribble on a piece of paper reforms into a symbol of hate.
Clark, partially through use of snippets of media, projections, and historical text, draws a clear picture of the concept of Nationalism as something that is embedded in humanity, a dark DNA to be staunchly fought. It is not, “How could this happen?” it’s, “When will this happen again?” Without constant self-reflection, he suggests, constant vigilance over this clannish, desperate, deeply disturbing part of ourselves, it absolutely will (and is, right at this moment). He is most strongly aided in this by composer Patrick Alexander’s breathtaking score. Luscious strings, led by the mellow viola (Lydia Gruber) and cellos (Nneka Lyn and Chanel Whitehead) are sharply contrasted with the spare gunshot of the drums (percussion by William Georg). There are ancestral sounds buried in there, a persistent thrum that makes everything feel so inevitable. The score tenses and relaxes, tenses and relaxes, until you’re on the literal edge of your seat. It’s master work, the heartbeat of the show. I don’t believe the production lives without it.
BOTTOM LINE: Hindsight will probably not be kind to our current regime, but that’s a cold comfort in the moment. Theatre like Meditations on Nationalism is a defiant shout. An uneasy blend of chilling warning and hopeful call to action, the show is gripping, with compelling performances, fearless direction, and a vitally composed (and executed) score. Love may not destroy hate, but empathy will, and that’s where art comes in. I wish it hadn’t closed so soon.