Zeitgeist's "Submission": What's In a Name?

Matthew Fagerberg, Aina Adler, Victor Shopov & Diego Buscaglia in "The Submission"
(photo: Joel W. Benjamin)

What's in a name? Just ask Shaleeha G'ntamobi. If you can find her. And that might be a problem, considering that she doesn't exist. In Zeitgeist Stage Company's production of “The Submission” by Jeff Talbott, she's the nom de plume for gay white playwright Danny (Victor Shopov), who wants so desperately for his play to be accepted for inclusion in a festival that he invents a pseudonym that not coincidentally sounds like the name of a black woman. His deception escalates when he must produce the female playwright, so he hires a black actress, Emilie (Aina Adler), to impersonate her/him. Even Danny's loyal lover Pete (Diego Buscaglia) and best straight friend Trevor (Matthew Fagerberg) are drawn into the complications that ensue. “The Submission”, written in 2011, is a hybrid, a tragedy that frequently erupts into comedy. It's about name-calling at a different level from any familiar norm, and it begins and ends with an f-bomb, with quite a few more of them in between. With Direction and Scenic Design by David Miller, the company's Artistic Director, at about a hundred and five intermission-less minutes, the play is as topical and provocative as contemporary theater gets, being about race, gender, sexuality and politics, which are, as Miller notes in the program, the cornerstones of theater today.

The initial deceit is unsavory enough, but it's not long into the piece that we begin to suspect that, to paraphrase Danny's work, it's important to know what he's capable of. He creates this quagmire of quicksand that slowly but surely exposes society's underbelly with its inherent bias and baggage camouflaged under a superficial veneer of tolerance. It also becomes a sort of one-upsmanship about which societal group, African-Americans or homosexuals, is the more oppressed. Disagreement about whether the gay community is, as Danny posits, “the new underclass”, and whether this white playwright can even begin to understand his own story about a black alcoholic mother and her card shark son in the projects, are only the first in a series of verbal brickbats. Danny accuses Emilie of a conspiratorial passing of the baton as being the object of prejudice, and her growing relationship with Trevor as reminiscent of an Oreo cookie; she retorts with a homophobic slur about being “the last on the bench for dodge ball”. He further declaims that “hating is hating”, that they share oppression, which she denounces, adding that his fabrication was “never about the play” but his own ego. The fights get way worse until a final exchange of epithets that's excruciating to hear. It's Emilie's opinion that their ultimate contretemps about revealing the true author was “not about the timing but the telling”. By the time she baits him in front of the others, revealing his true feelings (and Talbott's play itself is devoid of sentiment), the audience sits stunned at the sheer audacity of it all.

Miller's helming is, as usual, masterful, and the actors respond in kind. Shopov's bravura performance is yet another example of this actor's versatility, and Adler is every bit his equal. Buscaglia and Fagerberg do what they can with their basically underwritten roles, though each has his moment (notably the former's offstage anti-theater-people rant). The technical contributions, in addition to Miller's clever set depicting a New York apartment, a desk area and several intentionally indistinguishable Starbucks, include Costume Design by Shopov (with meticulous detail, right down to Pete's two pairs of turtle socks and mushroom socks, and Danny's lily white formal hoodie), intriguing Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson and crucial Sound Design by J. Jumbelic, providing a penultimate scene of ringing phones that perhaps should have been where Talbott ended the work, rather than a somewhat tacked-on epilogue that makes explicit outcomes the audience might have preferred to infer.

At the beginning of the “The Submission”, in a sort of inside joke, Danny's work is pronounced very “produceable”, given that it has only four characters and a minimalist set. Though we don't really get to know much about Talbott's quartet of characters, even the two main protagonists, we do get some insight into our supposedly “post-racial” times. We may not totally identify with any of the individuals portrayed on stage, but there's likely to be a lot that seems not entirely unfamiliar. It may not be perfect, especially with respect to fleshing out this foursome, but it's a challenging, discomforting and unique in-your-face confrontation. Irony of ironies, “The Submission” was itself a finalist in playwriting competitions. It's a compelling finale to Zeitgeist's impressive current season.

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