‘Do You Want to Know a Secret’ explores surveillance society

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Days after seeing Do You Want To Know A Secret?, Daniel Pinkerton’s new play at Intermedia Arts, more questions unexpectedly emerge, raising the hairs on the back of my neck. I’m still arguing with all the characters—and continually switching “sides.” Pinkerton and the Fortune’s Fool Theater actors have gotten into my head with this insidiously brilliant look at what living in a surveilence society does to people.

Set in East Germany during latter-stage communism and after the Berlin Wall falls, the play puts an intimate microscope on domestic spying. Nearly one in eight East Germans colluded with Stasi, the state secret police: some directly reporting, others acting as “unofficial collaborators,” informing on friends, co-workers and even family members.

“It’s more interesting to use the ‘mask’ of East Germany, something that happened some time ago,” observes Pinkerton, who has a Master’s degree in history. A previous play The Ballad of Mary Mallon is a musical about Typhoid Mary, co-created with composer Chris Tennaula.

“My playwrighting is informed by my work in history. I like to write
about other societies, other times with attention to the particular, and then the theme is visible,” Pinkerton declares. “This play isn’t just political. It’s tragedy. It’s people living in a pressure-cooker.”

Based on a true story, the pivotal character is Karin Berger, a lifelong reform activist, torn from her communist newspaper editor husband Walter, and their daughter Erika, when she’s sent to prison for her politics. A real-life family of veteran local actors create the Bergers.

It’s refreshing to see a play that centers on a woman as the
politically engaged protagonist. Barbara Kingsley perfectly embodies both Karin’s tough vulnerablility after prison and the intense idealism that landed her there . Her angry woundedness and careening struggle to reconcille past and present propel the play. Stephen D’Ambrose makes Walter a gentle foil, air to Karin’s fire. There’s a magnetism of “opposites attract” in their married love as it cracks under the weight of events bigger than they are. Kingsley and D’Ambrose have long resumes with the Gutherie, Jungle, Mixed Blood and other area theatres.

Maggie D’Ambrose was last seen as the teenager in love with a
27-year-old man, in Bedlam’s Teach Me Tonight, the playwrighting debut of Ariel Pinkerton—the daughter of this play’s author and the production’s lighting designer. The younger D’Ambrose plays the Bergin’s daughter, Erika, on her own adolescent emotional rollercoaster, yanked between her parents’ crisis and yearning to define her own independent identity.

Incarceration imposes lonely dispair on Karin as Walter awkward
attempts to bridge their separation during a prison visit contrasts with his solid bond with their daughter, Erika. The family’s reunion coincides with the government’s fall and, eventually, the release of files the state kept on citizens. Also in the mix is Karin’s longtime friend, Anja, played with sardonic sexiness and hard-edged realism by Greta Grosch. Harry Baxter plays Karin’s father, Wolf, a higher-up in the former communist regime. Are his overtures to heal his severed relationship with Karin sincere or a sociopath’s manipulations? These characters are so complex one forgets they are actors.

“What happend in East Germany was blatent. It’s more subtle here. It’s insidious—racial profiling, the use of fear.” Stephen D’Ambrose says. “My character’s perception is, ‘I’m trying to protect you’—that’s what he’s about.”

Leah Cooper, (who’s executive director of the Minnesota Fringe Festival) steadily steers these relationships’ collision course, intuitively knowing when to push actors to their edge and when restraint is more powerful.

Lately, “multi-media” seems required for every play. Too often, that
means actors competing with ornate soundscapes and lots of projected videos. The impression is audiences have ADD, demanding hyper-stimulation, as if actual human beings simply on stage would be dull

That’s not the case with what videographer Mathew Foster brings to the play. His (mostly grainy black and white) projections of characters speaking directly are creepily ambivalent: Are these interrogations? Secret tapes? Freely given exchanges? Artistic director for the Ministry of Cultural Warfare, Foster creates a surveillance atmosphere that’s essential to the play. There’s also a sutlte critique of our tell-all culture of confession.

Politics in this play is deeply personal. Government spying pits loyalty against fear. Betrayal and complicity defy easy assumptions. How a society faces an ugly past is explored through the closest emotional ties.

“This play doesn’t make judgments. We’re all culpable,” Kingsley says. “It makes you think about betrayal and what we do to survive.”

With the post-9/11 domestic spying and our own Homeland Security’s (mostly concealed) powers, this play challenges those who claim they’re fine with being spied on “if it helps stop terrorism,” since they have “nothng to hide.” A chilly invasiveness permeates this character-driven play that leaves one haunted with the intimate implications of state intrusion of our privacy.

Do You Want To Know A Secret? runs Thur. Mar. 9-Sun. Mar.26,
Thur.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm and 7 pm, $15 (Sun. matinee pay what you can), Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S. Minneapolis (612)673-1131 or email fortunesfooltheater@gmail.com.

Fri. Mar.17: Join a discussion after the performance led by Prof. Eric D. Weitz, director of Center for German and European Studies, an expert on post-WWII Germany history.

Hear playwright Daniel Pinkerton and actors Barbara Kingsley and Stephen D’Ambrose, Tues. Mar.7, 11am, on Catalyst, KFAI 90.3 FM in Mpls. and 106.7 FM in St Paul (archived for two weeks after broadcast at www.kfai.org)

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