"The Courtroom" might be triggering, and that has nothing to do with one's citizenship status.
If you have ever had intimate details of your life held up for impersonal inspection in a government office or a court of law, you might understand the fear choking the voice and tensing the body of Elizabeth Keathley (Stephanie Anne Bertumen) in Arian Moayed's docudrama.
As staged by James Rodriguez for the Jungle Theater in a sterile mock trial courtroom at Hamline University in St. Paul (the show will later move to the Jungle in Minneapolis), this immersive reenactment of a woman's deportation proceedings is coldly officious and powerfully unnerving.
But it's not just an illuminating, if discomfiting, exercise in reality theater. "Courtroom" ultimately reinforces the meaning of citizenship, thus fulfilling one of the cardinal aims of the theatrical form stretching back millennia.
Moayed arranged the dialogue and action from actual court transcripts. And the setting makes it feel like we're in an actual trial, complete with the audience rising for the judge.
Keathley is a Filipina bride living in Illinois with husband John as well as their stepdaughter and toddler. When she first arrived in the U.S., she took her passport and visa to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a state ID. The driver's license form had boxes for organ donation and voter registration. She checked both.
Come Election Day, she joined her husband at the polls and voted in a congressional election, an illegal act for a noncitizen. All of that brings us to the courtroom where, it seems, Keathley's chances of winning are slim.
Moayed aimed for the proceedings to be determinedly understated and untheatrical. To wit, the lines of questions, dialogue and testimony for all the "Courtroom" characters, including Keathley, defense attorney Richard Hanus (Vinecia Coleman) and immigration court prosecutor Gregory Guckenberger (Jay Owen Eisenberg), are all read from notecards, honoring the playwright's wishes.
The notecards give the proceedings a clinical feel, even if the actors know many of their lines. And being on-book functions almost like whispering: It draws you in.
Rodriguez's production is well acted. In tones both curt and flummoxed, Bertumen transmits Keathley's anxiety and discomfort. English is a second language for the immigrant, which was partially why she registered to vote in the first place. That she does not have a ready facility with the language also helps her in a case where the facts are not in dispute.
Coleman brings a laser focus to Hanus, a pants role (anyone can be cast in any of the roles, aside from the Keathleys, to honor the playwrights' wishes). Her Hanus finds the one defense that stands a chance of helping her client.
Dustin Bronson, who depicts John Keathley, draws some sympathy for his salt-of-the-earth character who works at Lowe's. Still, one might be mystified by John's seeming lack of civic education. How can an American-born citizen not know that his immigrant, noncitizen wife shouldn't be voting?
Bronson is part of an odd bit of casting as he also plays Appeals Judge Michael Kanne. Those two characters — John Keathley and Kanne — should not be inhabited by the same actor, no matter the performer's abilities. It's weird to see the same guy who plays the emotive, pleading father then sitting and deciding on the case.
On the other hand, Eisenberg is effective as both Guckenberger and appeals Judge Kenneth Ripple with business-like aplomb. The roles are part of the same work spectrum, which reduces the emotional hurdle to seeing the same actor in both.
Understudy Megan Kim also was no-nonsense as Judge Zerbe at Saturday's opening night performance. The "Courtroom" cast also includes veteran performers Alison Edwards as appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook and Melanie Wehrmacher as Margaret O'Donnell for the prosecution.
Performed with the lights up and with minimal effects, "Courtroom" ends on an unexpected up note where we all get a reminder of the awesome privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. It's enough to make you raise a right hand.
'The Courtroom: A Reenactment of One Woman's Deportation Proceedings'
Who: Arranged by Arian Moayed. Directed by James Rodriguez.
Where: Through June 11: Hamline University's West Hall, 1492 Hewitt Av. St. Paul; June 13-July 2: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $45 or pay-as-able. 612-822-7063, jungletheater.org.