Westphalia!, a new comedy-drama by Helen Banner, is making its world premiere at West Orange’s Luna Stage. It posits a future where one can sell one’s citizenship and purchase one in another country. In this future, AI robots help in the process of evaluating clients for their worthiness — their “profitability” — for changing national citizenships.
The value of a country’s citizenship is measured with daily changes in value tracked and reported like stocks and bonds are today. We follow the members of the Robert family, who have lived for generations in the Connecticut town of Westphalia: father Edward (Steven Hauck), who is currently facing some financial difficulties; son Kris (Neil Dawson), an art teacher whose dreams of being a full-time artist have been reduced to a hobby; and daughter Sandy (Sydney Lo), who is also a teacher.
Sandy has convinced Edward and Kris that selling their American citizenships would allay their financial state and allow them to change their lives for the better. They go to Cit-EX, the only firm licensed by the government to buy and sell citizenships, where they are interviewed by Leandra Brown (Laura Jordan), the human office manager, and Kultur 1 (Phoebe Lloyd), an AI-powered robot evaluator.
Each of these characters has their own agenda. Sandy wants nothing more than to leave Westphalia behind her because of prejudice she faced as a child. Kris originally was involved in protests against the selling of citizenship. Edward has reached his wit’s end trying to stay afloat, still not fully convinced it’s right to sell his citizenship and lose his family’s connection to the land. Leandra feels pressured to get new sales and excluded from Kultur 1’s conversation/connection to the Kultur network.
Kultur 1, however, needs human contact to improve its conversational abilities and prevent degradation of its functioning but is kept at a distance by Leandra. Edward’s neighbors, wealthy horsewoman Abigail Weston (also played by Jordan) and local judge Tom Danforth (also played by Hauck), are spearheading Westphalia’s community efforts to prevent citizenship sales and maintain their conservative values, strongly pressuring the Roberts not to sell.
The cast, under the direction of Lila Rachel Becker, is uniformly excellent. Hauck, Dawson, and Lo create a picture of slightly dysfunctional family dynamics that seems solidly real. Jordan and Lloyd are an “odd couple” at work, interpersonal tensions barely kept under the skin. Lloyd is especially good at maintaining the artificially cool tones and imitating the not-quite-jerky arm movements associated with current AI constructs; they convey depths of what could be considered emerging emotions under a costume and mask covering them from head to toe.
The two-level set designed by Patricia Marjorie and lit by Courtney Gaston functions well as the Cit-EX office, the Roberts’ living room, and the well-tended outdoor spaces of Westphalia. Sound designer Joshua Dumas has created the multiple voices of the Kultur network, which almost becomes a character on its own part, linking in with Kultur 1 for system updates and interacting with Kultur 1 and Leandra as they search for a better understanding of the human world. Deborah Caney’s costumes for the human characters are modern-day casual, what you might expect in near-future fashion, while the identity-concealing costume for Kultur 1 conveys just the right amount of otherness for the AI robot.
Westphalia! focuses on the nature of national citizenship — its value as part of belonging to a community and as the bundle of rights and privileges contained within it; the commodification of the intangible asset of citizenship; and the integration of AI entities into human society. Westphalia! brings a unique point of view to its subjects and invites its audience to question and explore new concepts without need for adversarial posturing.
Many plays say they are “challenging” and “thought-provoking,” but few come through on that promise. I am pleased to say that Westphalia! is one of those few that delivers. I cannot more strongly urge you to get to Luna Stage and see Westphalia!
Note: All photos courtesy of SMPhotos/Stephanie M. Gamba