A year ago, I saw Disclaimer as a work-in-progress at Under the Radar. In the halcyon days of January 2020, it was live. A year later, that I have to make that distinction, speaks to our weird moment in time.
Disclaimer is now playing as completed work as part of Under the Radar in an interactive, live cameras-on Zoom format. While it has a playful, chaotic energy, it is also an apt show for this moment where distance and separation are our everyday.
A year ago, I watched the show with a friend who burst into tears while watching it. I remember handing her a tiny tissue packet. And then holding her in my arms as we both cried.
At that time, I had just returned from a trip to Southeast Asia. I had been in Singapore, vomiting on a sidewalk, when a security guard handed me that tiny tissue packet. He brought me comfort and I like to think I passed along such comfort to my friend. It’s a weirdly specific memory of a tiny thing, except now I am holding on to it with such fierceness.
That moment—seeing the show and the post-show crying—feels like a lifetime ago. Or worse someone else’s life. Then, I could travel. I could hug a friend. We could give each other comfort. There was no fear that our tears or snot were vectors of a deadly disease. Now, my friend is far away. I feel at a great distance from everyone I love. I’m losing track of how my life was lived as I’m living it now so differently.
While my situation is one that is common now for many on the planet, it has forced me to think about how my privileged life has not been disrupted like this before. But for many upheaval and dislocation is all too common and a much harder, longer journey.
There are many people around the world who have been forced into exile. There are people who have lost their land (including within this country) and have been displaced. There are people right now who have for years lived across borders from the ones they love and they cannot cross them.
I once met a woman who miraculously escaped the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia as a teenager. Now in her later years, she marveled at her ability to go anywhere in the world as a now-Canadian citizen, but she could never see her parents in Czechoslovakia again. Her father would die before she could ever return.
My 10 months of mildly uncomfortable but largely secure/stable pandemic life is not that kind of journey. But that longing for people and places that are out of reach is familiar now.
Disclaimer is a show that tries to get people to see those parallels. It helps shift the audience’s empathy so we explore a life perhaps you have never lived. One changed by government policies, threats of war, and a daily life of challenges all because one country has labeled another one part of an “Axis of Evil.”
Writer, co-director, and performer of Disclaimer, Tara Ahmadinejad admits up front in the show that she has a political agenda. She wants to convince us of the humanity of Middle Easterners and Muslims and for us to see them as relatable. If she succeeds, maybe we will be less inclined to wage war with Iran, subject its people to economic sanctions, and maybe she will be able to see and gather with her family members.
Her methodology to achieve this is to stage a “virtual theater cooking webinar,” which gets derailed, and results in a whodunit murder mystery starring the audience members as members of her extended family. The serious agenda is a quiet undercurrent to the wacky surface happenings.
While some of this was a part of the live show, it gets rendered slightly differently in Zoom. Live, audience members were on stage and performed as the characters. Now, via the Russian roulette of Zoom, suddenly without warning in the middle of the show I am cast as a Persian aunt and I appear on screen for all to see with my Zoom name changed to Mamani. I am not called upon to do a lot—I close my eyes, I dance, I die. I am fondly remembered in a black-white flashback in the show.
I maybe wish I wasn’t wearing my giant fuzzy warm hooded fleece I got for Christmas that makes me look a little like Obi-won Kenobi. I’m grateful at the last minute I brushed my hair and put lipstick on for this show.
But this is all to make the audience members relate to a gossipy aunt who is good at matchmaking, a cousin who is obsessed with Evanescence, and an uncle who likes to make home movies and films the family and mountain goats all of the time. Audience members search around their homes for props to use and we all contribute to the storytelling as best we can.
With the format change to Zoom, I think some of the show’s subtly gets lost and the sense of a replacement family gathering—all of us acting as her proxy family together with her in a room—which was so much a part of the live show inevitably is re-configured when it’s over Zoom.
This is how families are gathering now, but it may not communicate as precisely the situation she is referencing. In some ways it’s hard to hammer a point about this specific exiled distance, from an actual Zoom distance. It just made me want to see the show again, in its final format, live. The frantic storytelling, mishmash of genres, and up-for-it audience in a shared space is a specific kind of performance communion that serves Ahmadinejad’s text well.
That said, the Zoom format allows for the Agatha Christie-esque portion of the show to be played out with a filmic precision and the design elements are strong. Ahmadinejad puts on a trench coat, carries a Sherlock Holmes pipe, and the screen shifts to black and white. With noir-lighting, she moves through decorated rooms full of candles, lace doilies, and British-murder mystery atmosphere. There is a very funny sort of miniature living room set which uses Persian cookies as people and is performed on a tiny Persian carpet. There are creative video elements to make the cooking show portion look more formal—graphics which announce “Herbs Time” and Persian background music. It keeps the visual Zoom landscape varied.
Ahmadinejad carries most of the storytelling. Her “sous chef” Hassan is on hand to stage manage some of this and provide an alternate character to rely on throughout. But the audience members in character remain on mute for most of the show.
Only at the end, when an audience member reads from the script along with Ahmadinejad do we get that moment of togetherness apart. It comes across a bit rushed in the Zoom presentation. But that’s truly the heart of the endeavor and even over Zoom, Ahmadinejad’s point about empathy gets made.