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The Secretary

(Left to right) Devon James as Janelle, Adeline Mann as April, and Emma Messenger as Lorrie
(L to R) Devon James as Janelle, Adeline Mann as April, and Emma Messenger as Lorrie
Photo: Michael Ensminger
 
The debate over guns is ubiquitous—broadcast media, social media, the red and blue political party marketing brand charade, personal conversations—name your platform or personal sources.

It would be easy to take sides, or poke fun at the usual suspects, but in The Secretary, now running at Curious Theatre Company, playwright Kyle John Schmidt mines an original and unique approach: put it in the hands of six hilarious, scary, and vulnerable women.

Christy Montour-Larson has the enviable task of directing this dark comedy, that she pitched to artistic director Chip Walton, and mining all the nuances with an all-star cast.

As Larson notes in the program, the trope, "guns donít kill people, people kill people," was coined by the President of the Colt Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company in a May 31, 1959 newspaper article carried by the Associated Press.

Kathleen M. Brady as Ruby
Kathleen M. Brady as Ruby
Photo: Michael Ensminger
 
Schmidt takes this argument, now a mainstay of the National Rifle Association, and turns it on its head, with multiple characters claiming that armaments manufactured by Ruby's (Kathleen M. Brady) company are defective, and that the guns "go off by themselves" unexpectedly; thus, in a farcical lens, "guns kill people." Given the advancement of AI robotics and drones, this is not far from the truth, but that is not Schmidt's point: people are claiming, "The gun did it, not me!"

Of course, Ruby knows this to be false, because the weapons that her company manufactures undergo exhaustive tests. Over the course of the story, Brady thoroughly convinces us that Ruby's motivation for becoming a gun maker is to protect women, based on a personal experience that she gradually reveals to April (Adeline Mann), who is applying for the job of Ruby's secretary. April's approach to everything—her resume, the interview, her politics—is 180 degrees opposed to Ruby's point-of-view, until a clever plot twist finds common ground in a big way. The dynamic of Ruby and April's relationship becomes a subtle game of poker, with Brady's heartfelt motivation and Mann's quintessential sardonic sass upping the emotional stakes as the cards are dealt, some face up and some face down.

Emma Messenger as Lorrie
Emma Messenger as Lorrie
Photo: Michael Ensminger
 
Ruby gives the secretary job to Lorrie (Emma Messenger), based on her tough-luck circumstances, without knowing her hidden motivation. Soon, Lorrie is maneuvering to usurp the office manager position from Janelle (Devon James). Janelle already resents Lorrie for getting the job over April, her step-sister. The malevalance in Lorrie's tone and physical presence is something to behold in Messenger's delivery, sending shivers through the audience every time she enters. James is a deftly understated crack-up as the continually thwarted, hapless stickler for enforcing company protocol, who never fails to get taken advantage of, personally and professionally.

(Left to right) Emma Messenger as Lorrie and Leslie O'Carroll as Shirley
(L to R) Emma Messenger as Lorrie
and Leslie O'Carroll as Shirley
Photo: Michael Ensminger
 
Ruby's business booms every time there is a shooting, so providing jobs at her factory in this depressed, lower-middle class town gives her enormous influence. When one of her acquaintences, Shirley (Leslie O'Carroll), a teacher at a local school, shoots and kills one of her disabled students with one of Ruby's automatic weapons, claiming "the gun just went off," Ruby lends her support by getting Shirley off the hook for having her gun at school, and giving her another weapon to replace the one taken by the police for evidence. Shirley knows about the skeletons in Ruby's closet, and O'Carroll's seemingly amorphous, but sublime, insinuations are subtextual gems.

Karen Slack as Brandy
Karen Slack as Brandy
Photo: Michael Ensminger
 
The magnitude of minefield danger goes exponential when Brandy (Karen Slack), mother of the slain student, shows up to confront Ruby about the use of her weaponry in the death, and then Shirley, who sticks to her story that the gun "just went off on its own." Brandy's quick temper is an automatic weapon of its own in Slack's hands, leaving us to wonder, in the midst of all the guns being handled, who is going to get plugged by a short fuse or a hair trigger. The final scene is the ultimate in anxiety.

Scene segues are punctuated with hyperbolic ads selling guns for every occasion, including for bridesmaids, keeping the comedic and farcical elements in play, which makes the open-ended questions that the playwright is asking all the more powerful.

Schmidt manages to achieve in this play what few playwrights (Shake-speare, Shaw, Miller ... ) are able to do: to discuss political and social issues without creating straw men for their personal beliefs and opinions. He does this in a number of clever ways, beginning with his choice to have a diverse personae of women wrestle with the issues, which moves the questions about men, testosterone, and adrenaline, to the periphery, and focuses on the issue of guns, in and of themselves.

Sure, people using guns kill other people, some of whom also have guns and some of whom do not. But to his credit, Schmidt presents a number of perspectives: when a weapon protects someone vulnerable to attack; when a weapon is a deadly threat in the wrong hands; when violence drives gun sales; when the convenience of a weapon leads to disaster, etc.

The usual range of gun discussions in the mish-mash mentality of manufactured consent drilled into the American masses by corporate media is either "for" or "against," the black & white logical fallacy of only two choices, with no discussion of context: the strategy of those at the top of the control pyramid who choke the money supply, destroy education, maintain an underclass to serve as canon fodder for their imperial wars, give license to police violence, and traffic drugs from Afghanistan and Columbia into our cities, to drive desperation and division.

Without this context—where the banks and corporations have usurped unconstitutional powers—discussions about the Second Amendment are moot. One need only to look at Australia to see the pattern of events (gun violence, gun laws, expanded police powers [and here]) being orchestrated in the U.S. and the dystopian future the power structure has in mind. To Schmidt's credit, his story creates a space where this larger discussion remains in play.

Curious Theatre Company's regional premiere of The Secretary, by Kyle John Schmidt, runs through February 22nd. For tickets: curioustheatre.org/event/the-secretary/.

Bob Bows



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