When Jordan Friend, the highly inventive founder of 4615 Theatre Company, invited me to attend a rehearsal of Museum 2040 a few weeks ago, I jumped at the opportunity.
The show, billed as an “immersive experience,” was set to have its first complete run-through at a rehearsal space, tucked away in a desolate corner of downtown Silver Spring. Roughly 20 people — mostly friends of the cast — attended.
As the play began, we were escorted, single file, into the narrow entryway of what we learned was the new Museum of American Reconciliation. There we were stopped and frisked by a pair of guards (Katie Culligan and Michael Crowley) who scowled as they barked out orders.
Once admitted into the museum, we were surrounded by “artifacts” — newspaper clippings, objects and photos — documenting an event that had occurred in 2030. The event, we learned, was an attack in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Studying the exhibits 10 years later, we learned of the loss of lives, the suppression of speech, the rise in militias and the toll of climate change.
After 30 minutes of wandering through the exhibition, we were seated, along with members of the cast, in front of a podium and a panel of speakers for the formal dedication of the building.
A lone musician, Sean Harrison (played by Sean Chyun), opened the event by playing a medley of patriotic songs. (He wrote them, he explained, after four years of “re-education” at a camp.)
The ceremony began with a hilariously officious welcome by the acting curator of the museum, Dr. Alicia La Point Smith (Miranda Zola). She treated us to a stream of platitudes. Next came a video of the President of the United States — happily a woman — who led the group in prayer.
Other participants included a teacher (Valerie Adams Rigsbee); a tourist from Senegal (Shaquille Stewart); a US Senator up for re-election (Dylan Arredondo); a community activist and scholar (Reginald Richard), and a housewife from Iowa (Mary Myers).
Throughout it all, we were literally embedded with the cast, some of whom we did not recognize as actors until they stood up and spoke. It was a startling, and often terrifying, experience, filled with a kind of menace that most of us know only from second-hand accounts.
“It takes a lot of bravery to rehearse in front of an audience,” said Friend. In addition to all the usual problems, he pointed out that while most of the play is scripted, about a fifth of it is not. “It’s like a vault,” he added. “It’s full of secrets, which may or may not come out.”
I talked to Playwright Renee Calarco before and after the rehearsal. For her, the experience of developing the play, and seeing it professionally produced, has been almost surreal.
Calarco began writing Museum 2040 six years ago, when she was a founding member of the Welders, a playwrights collective formed in 2013. “It was a monologue at first, but then I began thinking about the characters. Gradually it took shape as a play, though it was experimental in design,” she explained.
There were two performances at the Welders, one in December 2015 and the other in January 2016. Both were staged readings. “I took the feedback from those presentations and revised the piece,” she said. But she put it aside in 2016 when, as she put it, “Trump’s election proved that reality is crazier than fiction.”
A year ago, she ran into Jordan Friend. “I admired his storytelling approach. So I said, ‘I have this play. It’s unproducible.’ “A week later, he called back. ‘I want to do it,’ he said.”
During the year since, she has revised the play many times. “The writing has been pretty much nonstop,” she explained. “I’ve added things, cut them, then added them back.”
Many of the changes have come from the cast. “The beauty of theater is that it’s collaborative,” Calarco said. “The entire creative team has helped me to build this world — through questions, improvised dialogue, suggestions about artifacts — you name it.”
Theater is a family tradition for Calarco. She grew up in Rochester, New York, where her maternal grandparents were involved in the Yiddish stage. Her grandfather was a playwright and her grandmother a well-known performer.
Her brother, the writer and director Joe Calarco, is the dramaturg for Museum 2040. He directed two of her previous plays, Short Order Stories at Charter Theatre, which won the 2007 Charles MacArthur Award, and The Religion Thing, which was produced at Theater J in 2012.
Museum 2040 opens this weekend at the Dance Loft, a performance space located inside the long-shuttered Park Theater, a gilded movie palace of the 1920s. (The Tivoli, built in the same era — and just down the road on 14th Street — now houses GALA Hispanic Theatre.)
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, including one intermission.
Cast: Miranda Zola (Dr. Alicia Lapointe-Smith), Shaquille Stewart (Sebastien Dakeyo), Dylan Arredondo (Senator Hirota), Reginald Richard (Erik Patterson), Mary Myers (Lori Conway), Valerie Adams Rigsbee (Elizabeth O’Neil), Michael Crowley (Agent Raney), Katie Culligan (Agent Aquinas), Musician Sean Chyun (Sean Harrison).
Artists: Playwright Renee Calarco, Director Jordan Friend, Dean Leong, Exhibit Design; Jeanette Christensen, Costume Design; Andrew Scott Zimmer, Video Design; Gregory Keng Strasser, UI/UX Design.