A world premiere play from two local playwrights has a somewhat muddled message. But its captivating production and ample discussion fodder make it worth your time. The Fifth Wave runs through February 27 at Macha Theatre Works.
The first time I saw Mari Nelson perform, she was leading a revolt in upstart crow collective’s Bringing Down the House. I don’t remember any of the treachery particulars — I would fail literally any test on Shakespeare — but I remember her conviction. And I remember thinking, Whoa. I would totally follow her into battle. Particulars not required, apparently.
In The Fifth Wave, a new play by Jenn Ruzumna and Lisa Every produced by Macha Theatre Works, Nelson dispenses with the weaponry but is drawn into battle nonetheless. The battleground is a (small, it seems) college campus, where rumors of a sexual assault — by one student against another — divide campus loyalties, right in the middle of festivities honoring taking a stand against sexual assault. Nelson plays a gender studies professor who’s both celebrated for her bravery from an event exactly 25 years prior (she gave a raw, powerful, and rather public speech reclaiming her own mind, body, and spirit following an attack against her), and excoriated for her refusal to condemn outright an accused assailant in her own gender studies classroom.
The speech is resurrected and goes viral, thanks to the internet. And for all she was in charge of her moment back then, she’s hardly in charge of it now. Attention she doesn’t want and was never consulted on — from the college trying to lionize her, her husband bumbling to placate her, and her students fighting to galvanize her — makes so much noise, there’s little space for her to process anything on her own. And so, eventually, it all explodes.
The Fifth Wave employs some intriguing storytelling devices, magnified through Macha’s intense and focused staging. Production and scenic designer Parmida Ziaei has some of the richest design work on stage right now (Mala; Shakespeare: Drum and Colors). Here too Ziaei’s vision shines, making a bold statement with even a minimalist set. Dani Norberg’s lighting design also comes through boldly, setting the stage awash in moods. That and the sound design (by Lisa Finkral) combine to crack like the earth opening up, just when it’s needed.
Prospering under those elements, the opening sequence, labeled the prologue, booms with power and righteous rage; the scene then pivots to the banal, a contrast of life two decades later. Direction from Amy Poisson gives all these creative elements space to bloom, while keeping the story’s pace efficient and its many moving pieces (including a band of furies doubling as students) largely reined in.
But this is a case where a gorgeous production and interesting concepts are often overtaken by a muddled storyline.
My problems with this play are two-fold, and rather large. First — and this is a problem I had with a prior show from Ruzumna and Every (Happy, Happy, Happy …, which Macha produced in 2017) — they’ve written the equivalent of manspreader roles, in which the male characters suck up a lot of stage time but add little to the story. Worse, at critical moments where female characters are having breakdowns — throw in every stereotype imaginable — the man is like the anchor; suddenly, he’s standing there looking like the “sane” one on stage. It’s a really strange message for a play rooted in feminism. And I’d be curious to see how much deeper the women’s stories get if the men were referenced but never seen.
Second is just how hard those stereotypes — from militant to hysterical to illogical — grabbed hold and steered the show. Female students lead a conquest, no victim ever comes forward, and the alleged attacker (a male student) is barred from telling his side. No one deals in facts; emotions carry the day, as the chorus demands his immediate expulsion. It’s a mob mentality. And it forces decisions — and some more disturbing scenes — that are never really explained.
In a clever bit of staging and scenic design, the table at the center of the action looks an awful lot like one in a courtroom. But there’s no formal allegation, no facts, no scrutiny, and the jury made up its mind before it ever entered the (figurative) courtroom. This play was infuriating to watch, but for all the wrong reasons.
Which leaves me with … what exactly is the message of this play? The title is surreptitiously provocative: to the extent that there’s already a fifth wave of feminism (as some literature suggests there is), it’s aimed at tearing down the systems of oppression themselves. The Fifth Wave suggests the result of destabilizing systems of oppression quickly turns to anarchy; it’s an environment devoid of due process, where mob mentality reigns. It doesn’t bode well.
So is this a regressive play, where the authors warn of the newest wave? It seems unlikely that’s the intent. But from what’s on stage, under the banner of fifth-wave feminism, there are no winners; none of the women are empowered to make their own decisions, and whatever happens doesn’t look like justice.
If this play is designed to inflame passions and provoke discussions, it’s doing its job. If its aim is to convey a message, I have no idea what that message is. Nelson’s commanding stage presence in The Fifth Wave shows flickers of battle-ready once again, particularly in that first scene. But her students are the ones grabbing the lead; and none of them seem to know where they’re headed.
All that probably sounds like a recommendation to skip this show. To the contrary. This play tackles provocative questions in provocative ways, and we need more staging that does that. Go see it with someone who knows more than you, or thinks differently than you do, and throw down after. The central themes are things we all should be talking about.
The Fifth Wave runs through 2/27, produced by Macha Theatre Works at West of Lenin in Seattle (Fremont). Tickets are $11-$101 (sliding scale for all), available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are single-stall and gender-neutral; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
For shows by date, see the Performance Calendar.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.