Go with no preconceived notions to best absorb Scena Theatre’s Submission, the American premiere theater adaptation of the 2015 European best-selling novel by French author Michel Houellebecq. Adapted and adeptly directed by Scena’s Robert McNamara, Submission is bracing and bold as it distills Houellebecq’s prophecy for France’s Western-oriented liberal democracy (and well beyond).
As the play hustles along, Submission is full of genuine dark political and interpersonal turmoil. Yet it also can push its theatrical delivery with some heavy-handed hammering; without the sharp rush of witty satire.
McNamara’s adaptation of the controversial novel Submission focuses on the near future. The play’s journey is narrated and led by a Dante-inspired, contemporary Virgil-like character. He takes the audience by the hand through newer circles of torment. Well, torment for the characters and audience members who are believers in progressive secular democracy as the only true endpoint for politics and culture.
Submission is set in France in the year 2022. New elections are on the horizon. It is a time of unrest. Voices from the right-wing National Front are joined by new voices from those previously unheard, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Identity politics is growing along with citizen discontent and acrimonious political debate. Will the center hold? Is the “mainstream” even ready and able to respond while living in their own cloistered world?
Scena’s Submission comes into audience view with the appearance of a discontented, self-centered, well-educated man named François (in an on-the-money, tense, gravely-voiced, stinging performance by Ron Litman). His life is one of anhedonia. He exists in a sheltered academic life teaching at the Sorbonne. He is disillusioned by his early Catholic upbringing. Few things quicken his pulse. Women are around only for his own untender sexual pleasure. Women are expected to submit to his physical needs. He cares little or nothing about them as human beings. Then things begin to change for François, especially after he makes an unexpected pilgrimage to the venerated Black Madonna of Rocamadour shrine. He begins to notice his own emptiness and failing.
Yes, indeed, the character François is a difficult man to care about. But his likability is not the absolute point of François’s presence in Submission. He represents a class of privileged people of culture and respectability. Yet, scratch deeper. Then he seems to represent those who just might accept those mythical words of Marie Antoinette “après moi le deluge” when it comes to people of color, or immigrants and currently those wearing yellow vests.
Two other actors in the small ensemble demanded my attention. Stacy Whittle portrays François’s younger Jewish girlfriend Myriam as well as politically savvy Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front. Whittle is simply awesome; she takes the spotlight whenever she appears. She lifts the production from its intellectual downcast and cold into a sweltering heatwave. If Ron Litman as François is ice, then Stacy Whittle, no matter who she portrays, is flame and fire. In her posture and acid line delivery as Le Pen, she is not to be trifled with. As the caring, decent Myriam, her posture softens, as does her voice; she will do almost anything to please François.
Recent stage newcomer Greg Ongao portrays Mohammed Ben Abbes, the leader of the French Muslim Brotherhood, among other characters. Speaking as the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ongao is hypnotic. He is a mesmerizingly shrewd politician running for President of France in 2022. As Ben Abbes, Ongao delivers a message that he is not a messenger with a sword but can become President through free elections. What transpires after the election is another matter. Kim Curtis and David Johnson complete the cast of characters with multiple roles.
Several creative design notes for readers. The production is performed in Lab Theatre I, in DC’s Atlas Performing Arts Center. The set by Leah Mazur is spartan, with metal chairs, several clothes racks, and a rug. With the minimal visual set design, audience members can fully immerse in the dialogue and the strong issues raised. Patrick Lord’s projections add a fine sense of place to the production. Mei Chen’s costumes provide actor Stacy Whittle what she needs to disappear for only a moment to come back into view as any number of different characters. The sound design from Kevin Alexander includes pumping pre-show rock and hip-hop sung in French that settles into a much different vibe to underpin the production including “Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Hallelujah,” and well-positioned Philip Glass.
As Submission winds down to its startling conclusion, the array of issues raised become more boldly presented. Many questions are posed: is progressive secularism dried up as a political and cultural force? Is the privileged class too weary to resist or will it find another way to survive? And what is it that men really want in a relationship?
In this daring production, the Submission characters are glimpsed before a final blackout. Their choices are clear and visual and aural. Each in their own way has been impacted by a higher power. They have submitted themselves. If you decide to take in Submission, please let me know your own reactions.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.