“The arts are the pulse of the body politic,” says Matthew Steinfeld in an episode of The New York Times’ podcast Still Processing. One part of the present political milieu artists are responding to in Seattle is an influx of corporate dominance and expansion. Corporate tech giants (namely Amazon) are rapidly restructuring the city’s economy, feeding gentrification and displacement. These patterns of corporate power expand beyond Seattle, one recent example being Amazon’s plans to develop a second headquarters, prompting mayors across the country to pitch their cities. While Seattle artists have responded across disciplines to the city’s transformation at the hands of these companies, one new play is imagining what comes next.
Café Nordo’s new production, Onerus, extrapolates tech’s expanding influence in the region into the future, playing out onstage what might result. The show (written by Terry Podgorski) places the audience in 2046: Cascadia is a mega-tech hub and corporations have overturned the U.S. government. All citizens are connected to the Internet 24/7 through a device called a Sync-Disk implanted in their necks. The Corporate Council monitors each citizen’s Internet activity through this implant, a process they call “being transparent.” One side effect of the Sync-Disk is the loss of the ability to dream. Citizens who refuse to use them are criminalized, labeled “deviants,” hunted down, and forced to dream for the entertainment of the Sync-Disk-compliant citizens. Early on in Onerus, audience members are informed that they are the “compliant citizens” and can expect to experience a night of “harvested Organic Dreams.”
The Organic Dreams are accompanied by a decadent four-course organic meal to assist with entering the “drift” of the dream experience. In one scene, shortly after witnessing a dream forced out of Deviant 842 (Richard Nguyen Sloniker), the audience is served a dish named after the Deviant—a log of pink cabbage stuffed with mushrooms, leeks, and ginger. Since chef Erin Brindley is also the show’s director, the sensory experiences onstage and on-plate are eerily linked. Annastasia Workman’s band plays an ambient cover of “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones as you munch, and characters in Star-Trek influenced attire wait on the audience. Aesthetically, the production mirrors mainstream future-driven films and television shows. The abstract minimalism Onerus chooses feels a little cliché, and left me craving something more distinctive.
That being said, Onerus engages with the audience in a subversive way as they participate in their “biologically authentic experience” of Organic Dream-viewing. “Our clients reap the benefits of our transaction here,” says actor José Amador, playing Trey, one of the directors of the dream-viewing. He promises the audience that their dreaming will be stimulating, tailored to the need of the citizens, “so consumer society would excel.” The experience is marketed to the citizen-consumer-audience members not only through Amador’s words, but also through pamphlets placed on the dining tables.
In another scene, Dexter (Devin Bannon) admits that only wealthy people are able to enter the “drift.” The parallels between dreaming as entertainment and succulent, immersive dinner theater as entertainment raised a number of questions for the audience. Dreaming is built for rule-following, wealthy consumers to “escape the world,” Iris (Opal Peachey) says—are those entering the theater also escaping, then? Does entertainment function as a tool of corporate control? Near the middle of the production, the CFO (Heather Refvem) of Oceanus, the governing corporate power, confesses her business’s ultimate goal: the removal of complete cognitive ability in citizens using “neuro-technology of thought extraction.” The neuro-technology would be marketed to the public as a means to remove thoughts they do not like. What price is to be paid for comfort?
At the climax, Deviant Brooke (Madison Jade Jones) delivers a few pointedly political lines regarding resistance to corporate control: “Those on the top won’t stop, so those on the bottom can’t stop,” she says as Workman’s band begins to clap in syncopated rhythms, tension rising as the play comes to a shocking end. After the curtain call, the performers waltz out from backstage delivering decorative desserts. Brooke’s words turned in my head as I ate an avocado chocolate mousse covered in glitter. Onerus, Café Nordo, 109 S. Main St., cafenordo.com. $75. 21 and over. Ends Sun., Nov. 19.