Do you remember the old Firesign Theatre? On their records (do you remember records?), an absurd scene would dissolve into another absurd scene, until you dissolved in laughter.
To put a period on our annus horribilis, Ike Holter’s I Hate It Here uses the Firesign Theatre motif. Absurd scenes dissolve into other absurd scenes. But what you dissolve in…isn’t laughter.
Like Firesign Theatre, this production uses uniformly fine acting and excellent, integrated sound design (Mikhail Fiksel) to turn the soundscape into a dreamscape. Occasionally the tension breaks out into a musical number, just like it does on the Firesign Theatre albums (they are all in exceptional voice in I Hate it Here). But there the resemblance ends.
Another title for Holter’s work, which is now available for free in audio form on Studio Theatre’s website, might be I Hate You Here, because its business, like the year’s, is to strip away our pretensions to reasonableness and good will to reveal the loneliness, fear, and hatred that lies beneath.
Thus, for example, a mother of the bride, a White woman (Jennifer Mendenhall) has a conversation with an African-American guest (Jaysen Wright) which begins with her strategy to be free of responsibilities by her mid-forties but turns into an abstract discussion about the beating of a Black man by police and then turns into a harrowing tale of personal responsibility.
Thus, for example, a schoolteacher’s (Sydney Charles) monologue about the familiar afflictions of her profession – parent-teacher conferences, parents who abdicate responsibility for their child’s learning – suddenly warps into an account of a profoundly racist act, and of her supervisor’s decision to accommodate those involved rather than right the wrong. The teacher complains that her supervisor did not hear her, but we know that he did. He just didn’t care.
Thus, for example, a woman marks the beginning of the reign of King Covid by noting the death of her dog and then spins a narrative about a world gone completely out of control. (Because the character was never identified by name in this audio piece and is not otherwise identified in the program, I can’t name the actor).
In the most compelling piece, Frank (Gabriel Ruiz) and Wash (Tony Santiago) have won a singular victory in their war against the system: the city has installed a stop sign on the corner of their street. Tanya (Charles), a second-generation activist and an old friend of Wash, scoffs at their accomplishments. Is this what they struggled to achieve? She’s meeting the Mayor next week – but to what purpose? And so Wash and Tanya go at it, with bad intent: is it better to shoot for the Moon, and achieve nothing? Or to aim lower, and achieve a stop sign?
In this twenty-minute episode, Holter has identified the dilemma of the present movement. The objective is not to change laws, it’s to change hearts and minds. It’s easy to change laws. All it takes is a little marching, some beatings, being torn apart by dogs, going to jail, having a national leader who can play Congress like a bass fiddle, and having your own leader assassinated. But it’s harder to change hearts and minds. We humans are hard-wired to see the world as sum-zero, and to believe that the only way to be safe is to subdue or kill everyone else. So if the mission is to bring us to the civility and good will we pretend to have, it’s not the heart and mind that needs to be convinced. It’s the amygdala.
Besides, thanks to covid, a lot of folks have lost their minds. And their hearts.
The work’s subtitle is “Stories from the End of the Old World.” This implies that there will be a new world. Good luck with that.
I’ve made I Hate It Here sound pretty grim. It is. But if this year has made you feel anger, despair, sadness, frustration, hate and depression, it’s satisfying to know that you’re not alone.
It is a cliché to say that a work of art captures the zeitgeist of the age. But I Hate it Here does, and that’s that.
I Hate It Here: Stories from the End of the Old World
1 hour, 22 minutes
Streams for free thru March 11, 2021
I Hate It Here: Stories from the End of the Old World, written and directed by Ike Holter, with Sivan Battat as Assistant Director . Featuring Sydney Charles, Behzad Dabu, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Jennifer Mendenhall, Gabriel Ruiz, Tony Santiago, and Jaysen Wright . Sound design by Mikhail Fiksel . Noel Nichols is the audio engineer and dialogue editor . Adrien-Alice Hansel is the dramaturg . Luisa Sánchez Colón is the stage manager . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.