“All nations are invented,” Bilal Dardai reminds us near the start of The Sovereign Statement, the new Neo-Futurist production he wrote and appears in along with five other actors. Sure, countries may possess hard assets like land and resources, industries, armies, and infrastructure. They may find identity in a dominant language or religion or DNA strain. But at heart they’re all intellectual properties: abstract notions with real-world implications, constructed out of a set of rules and an official narrative. Making his point as ridiculously as possible, Dardai cites the entirely conceptual micronations of Talossa (founded by a 14-year-old Milwaukee kid in 1979), Nova Roma (a Maine-based home for those who miss the glories of ancient Rome), and Celestia (reportedly registered with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds as comprising the entire universe exclusive of earth).
If Dardai’s statement seems a little oh-wow-ish—the kind of thing that comes up in bong-driven dorm-room conversation—it nevertheless speaks directly to the current historical moment, in which national narratives are unraveling all over the place. Consider Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and the women drivers of Saudi Arabia. Consider Congo and Greece. Consider the goddamn breakup of the Soviet Union. And what’s the Tea Party, after all, but a club for people who’ve lost the thread of the national story they’ve been telling themselves—the one where the United States is a white man’s paradise?
Dardai’s own narrative starts with another state whose knots are coming loose: Pakistan. He was born there and raised in America, the result being that he’s not quite sure where, how, or whether he fits. But The Sovereign Statement isn’t the tale of his patriotic confusions—not specifically, anyway, though events lead us rather clunkily back around to that issue as the 100-minute show wears on. No, Dardai means to turn confusion into a communal experience. The Neo-Futurists are best known for the long-running Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which offers audience members the chance to choose the short plays they’ll see at any given performance. In the same spirit, Dardai makes us voting participants in the creation of an independent national entity—Neovakia or Neofuturella, depending on the consensus—whose borders are defined by the theater walls. We’re delegates to a founding convention, in effect, and the play itself is the document we’re there to ratify. It’s our narrative.
The experience actually starts in the lobby, where we’re issued passports that are inspected and stamped by four customs agents sitting at a high bench of the sort you might expect to find in a Kafka story or a Max Fleischer cartoon. This border-crossing exercise doesn’t make much sense, inasmuch as the country we’re entering doesn’t exist yet (and won’t until we’ve convened inside the theater proper), but it’s pretty hilarious all the same. We’re divided up alphabetically, by last name, and the agents stick hard to protocol, pointedly ignoring anybody who falls outside their purview, even if they’re not doing anything when the applicant/supplicant approaches. I was ID’d with a color, a letter, and a number, and my name was carefully misheard as “Admiril” rather than “Adler”—which, coincidentally, is exactly how my family became Adlers in the first place, their original name having been misheard at Ellis Island.
There’s a similar sense of tactical anarchy to the proceedings inside. A melancholy Dardai is joined by his comic foil, Phil Ridarelli, who’s appointed chairman of the “autonomous empire” of whatever and—accompanied by his minions, including a frighteningly officious Jen Ellison—begins the inevitable slide into megalomania, betrayal, and ignominy.
The opening passages are clever and funny as Dardai explains his theater-as-nation conceit in all its elaborate, satiric rigor. Votes are taken. Laws are enacted. Speeches are made. Ideals are pronounced and then compromised. A flag is designed. The anthem is intoned (“Sing of our nation, tiny and true . . . Whatever our faults, we’re better than you!”).
And of course, pockets of discontent are formed, subversions plotted. Before long various segments of the audience have been drawn off into other rooms where alternate intrigues are hatched and executed. (You’ve got to see The Sovereign Statement more than once to get all its convolutions.) I chose to stick with Chairman Ridarelli for as long as I could, until Dardai’s scenario required me to emigrate from the main theater back into the lobby. Ridarelli is an engaging actor; on opening night, though, he seemed to lose his focus and sputter as the absurdities piled up. But then, so did the piece as a whole. What was initially antic became merely chaotic, what began as an anatomization of bureaucratic obscurantism came across as arbitrary in itself. I guess it just goes to show how national narratives can come apart.