REVIEW: RIOT

IMAGE: Officer Frank Bell (Christoper Holbert) is confronted by activist Nicole Frederick (Nerissa Hart) for his inaction that resulted in loss of life. Photo by Sarah Scott.

REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE

The Highwood Theatre, located just over the line in Silver Spring, continues to present challenging, innovative theater within walking distance of Takoma Park. Its current offering, RIOT, runs through February 28.

If you go to see RIOT, be prepared for a test. (Remember the dreaded pop quiz from high school?) And bring your smart phone, tablet, or whatever you use to send out tweets, because tweeting is encouraged; in fact, tweeters get reserved seats.

Here’s how the pop quiz works: at key turning points in the story, a cast member (usually one not in the thick of the action at the moment) asks the audience a question about what they have just seen: “Who is at fault here?” “Do you trust this guy?” Based on the audience’s response, the plot turns one way or another: the door is opened, or not. What’s more, a running string of tweets, displayed on monitors located between the audience and the stage, comments on the action of the play, and audience members are encouraged to add tweets of their own. Audience participation, big time.

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Reporter Stacy Jorgensen (Jennifer Berry) is called out by the other coffee shop patrons (Andrea Goff, Smitty Chai and Nerissa Hart) for her exaggerated and misleading statements on social media. Photo by Sarah Scott.

Definitely not conventional theater, but not all that unusual. Think of it as an amalgam of rehearsed script and improvisation – both time-tested instruments of storytelling on stage.

What about the story? Ordinarily, I would tell you, but what I saw last Friday may not be exactly what you will see, so let’s take the basics from Highwood’s own synopsis:

“RIOT is set in Sam’s Coffee Shop, where a diverse group of characters gets caught up in a nearby protest-turned-riot. False information spread on social media fans the flames of dissent, and the heated debate turns violent.”

The coffee shop is located in a college town, and the protest is a quasi-weekly event, going back years, with causes that don’t seem especially compelling; for instance, the big issue this week is changing the name of the local college mascot. Not much tinder for a riot here; but riots can emerge from just about anything. On this occasion, one does, with the usual consequences: escalating violence, accusations of police brutality, a lockdown, frayed tempers, confrontations, and a pretty surprising – and, for me, unconvincing – dénouement. But, remember, what I saw is not necessarily what you will see.

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Fear and distrust bring the action to a climax, and all of the characters reach for the gun. Whoever ends up with it is entirely up to the audience. Photo by Sarah Scott.

Here’s a quick thumbnail of the characters.

Chris (Andrew Quilpa) runs the coffee shop with easy charm and bonhomie; you wonder how the place can be making any money with all the coffees he provides “on the house.” But he is also the voice of collective memory, recounting a tragic incident from a rally of bygone days.

Nicole (Nerissa Hart), the inveterate organizer of the weekly protests, is an articulate reformer but also a governor’s daughter (which makes her an inevitable target for criticism and resentment).

Ryan Park (Smitty Chai) is a tough, street-smart ethnic guy trying to climb the economic ladder with several big chips on his shoulder. He is spring-loaded to call out racial profiling at every turn (and, no, he’s not black).

Next is campus Police Officer Frank Bell (Christopher C. Holbert), who is black. Officer Bell, who is well acquainted with the protests and the recurring characters involved in them, carries baggage of his own from the tragic incident that Chris recounts.

There’s Stacy Jorgensen (Jennifer Berry), a reporter who sends out relentless tweets as the situation deteriorates on the street and in the coffee house, finding just about the most inflammatory possible way of wording everything.

Finally, there’s Andrea (Mollie Goff), a student whose boyfriend has been caught up in the protest outside; she worries about his safety and tries persistently to contact him.

Put them together, develop the conflicts; ask the audience where to go next, get the answer, continue the story.

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Chris Peralta (Andrew Quilpa) looks on as Ryan Park (Smitty Chai) is rebuked by Officer Frank Bell (Christopher Holbert) for his aggressive behavior. Photo by Sarah Scott.

All the actors are solid, but no one stands out – probably a necessary evil in this kind of show. And there’s not much eloquence in the lines – just straightforward dialogue, fairly fresh, serving the needs of the story. Good marks to director Sue Schaffel for keeping the action moving in whatever direction is called for, and to the cast for sure-footed acting at every unscripted turn.

The play raises a good number of substantive issues – police-community relations; racial profiling; how irresponsible social media use can inflame a situation; how stubbornly difficult it is to assign blame when participants in a tragic event remember it differently – and the dialogue actually manages to offer cogent arguments on both sides.

My advice: give RIOT a look. Keep an open mind, be ready to speak up, and bring your smart phone.

RIOT. Director: Sue Schaffel; Assistant Director: Garrett Schaffel; Stage Manager: Kelsey Murphy; Fight Choreographer: Claudia Rosales; Set and Lighting Design: Toly Yarup and Kevin Kearney, Sound Design: Orion Stekoll

Cast: Jennifer Berry, Smitty Chai, Mollie Goff, Nerissa Hart, Christopher C. Holbert, Andrew Quilpa

Length: 90 minutes, no intermission

Through Sun, Feb 28. Fri-Sat: 7:30 pm; Sun: 2 pm. At the Highwood Theatre, 914 Silver Spring Ave., Suite 102, Silver Spring (next to Roadhouse Oldies). Tickets: $25; buy online at www.thehighwoodtheatre.org or call (301) 587-0697.

About the Author

Steve LaRocque
Steve LaRocque has been an actor, director, playwright and technician in Maryland community and professional theaters since 1994. A retired Navy veteran, he recently completed a two-and-half year run with his one-man show, Byline: Ernie Pyle, playing the famous World War II correspondent.