Washingtonians are a hopeless clutch of bureaucracy-minded lambs paralyzed unless they have obvious rules to obey. That was one conclusion Wednesday night during an absorbing theatrical experiment called “The State,” which is difficult to describe without spoiling the experience but which cleverly reveals the people who come to see it.
The politically acute Forum Theatre, which last spring staged the regional premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s Trump dystopia “Building the Wall,” is presenting Bulgarian writer Alexander Manuiloff’s concept in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s rehearsal hall through Sunday. There are no actors. There’s no director. An audience of about 50 sits in a circle. There’s not much design: just a table, one light, a metal bucket, a microphone hanging from the ceiling and some papers.
There is a script and one important character: Plamen Goranov, a real person who in 2013 fatally set himself on fire as a public protest of Bulgarian poverty and corruption.
“I don’t feel represented,” Goranov says at one point. More public protest suicides followed in Bulgaria.
How Goranov communicates this is what can’t be spoiled. Manuiloff engineers it to depend on the audience, and Wednesday’s crowd was tentative. (No warnings necessary if you go: It’s a safe and exceptionally thoughtful hour or so.) The exercise provokes choices and actions that have obvious parallels to what we learn about Goranov.
It’s not a “show,” but it’s certainly theater. A critical variable is the cues audiences use to “read” the keys of any performance: Are there actors or not? There really aren’t, but on Wednesday, that wasn’t always clear, which plainly had some viewers confused about the options. What’s controlled (mostly) is what’s written, and if the audience keeps the context in mind, on good nights, “The State” could be a powerful memorial, a protest, a resistance, a spur.
Inevitably “The State” is a stark reminder that we are the actions we take, especially — why take this for granted? — when we are free. For my taste, Wednesday’s experience progressed from confused to opinionated and flippant: a perfect American mirror (sad!). Fascinatingly, the audience stayed for an extra half-hour to discuss what had just happened, and Manuiloff himself was there to answer questions (he is here for the week). The analysis was sharp and left you thinking that confronted with such open options again, the citizens at “The State” would be more assertive and smarter.
The State, conceived by Alexander Manuiloff. Produced by Forum Theatre. Through Dec. 3 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $35. Visit forum-theatre.org.