The Vienna Theatre Project takes a peek at a dystopian post-Trump world as envisioned by Robert Schenkkan
An African-American woman dressed in a long black coat and a red beret is sitting in a makeshift interrogation room, with a bald man wearing baggy clothes across from her. Illuminated by bright, fluorescent lights, both of them emanate a barely visible yet potent hostility towards each other. The woman asks pointed questions, which the bald man tries to evade.
This is the one of the early scenes from the play Building the Wall by Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, currently being rehearsed by the Vienna Theatre Project for its European premiere on Sep 25. Even in this informal setting, the intensity keeps everyone on edge. The two actors slip in and out of character, like a glitchy scene straight out of the movie The Matrix.
Life After Trump
The play is set in 2019, right after the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump. The African-American interrogator is history professor Gloria (Flo Wilson), her counterpart is the inmate Rick (Dave Moskin), a former prison administrator who finds himself possibly facing the death penalty for unspeakable crimes that are only gradually revealed. Gloria seeks to uncover and document the truth, but is obstructed by Rick’s reluctance to speak to a black woman. He only grudgingly overcomes his contempt, as no one else will hear his side.
Fresh off its initial 5-month run in Los Angeles, Building the Wall received critical acclaim, making it over the pond in record time due to its current relevance.
But the present commander-in-chief wasn’t the sole reason why director Joanna Godwin-Seidl chose Building The Wall: She was drawn by “the hardship in the truth behind the narrative, that it is a reflection of how Austrian society has been in the past.” Having made a name for herself with thought-provoking productions such as The Who and the What by Ayad Akthar, which dealt with multiculturalism and islamophobia, she was more than ready to ask tough questions. To her, the play is “a check on society,” a sort of reminder that history must not be repeated.
The infectious tension and emotion can be attributed to the efforts of the well chosen cast. Wilson and Moskin developed entire backstories, internalizing them as their own and mastering even the finest nuances of their character’s demeanor. For Dave Moskin, this was especially demanding: “My character has done some very terrible things. And finding that within yourself is always going to be a little difficult.”
Among other things, Flo Wilson found that the right footwear is key to capturing the essence: “When I find the right shoes for the character, it changes the way I walk, it changes the whole physicality.” Perhaps the most challenging thing for Wilson, who is British, was Gloria’s American accent: “I feel like my tongue is swollen in my mouth,” she says, laughingly.
Indeed, convincing American enunciation proved to be one of the bigger obstacles in finding an actress for Gloria: After trying to cast locally and coming up empty, Godwin-Seidl expanded her call to the U.K. Finding Wilson ended up being a stroke of sheer luck – as it turns out, she did not even apply. Her partner did it for her, thinking she was perfect for the role after seeing it advertised online. Wilson only found out about this after being invited to audition in Vienna.
Much to Ms. Godwin-Seidl’s delight, the playwright, Robert Schenkkan, has announced he will be flying in from Los Angeles to attend the premiere. “I hope we do him justice,” she says sincerely. They will.