Berkeley Rep’s 'White Noise' Won’t Put You to Sleep, But it Might Not Wake You Up, Either

(l to r) Chris Herbie Holland (Leo), Therese Barbato (Dawn), Aimé Donna Kelly (Misha), and Nick Dillenburg (Ralph) in Berkeley Rep’s production of White Noise. (Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

The willingness of audiences to suspend disbelief gives live theater the ability to explore unfamiliar and speculative terrain, even from a stage set prosaically with the trappings of a middle-class household. In Suzan Lori-Parks’ White Noise, which runs through Nov. 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, we’re thrown headfirst into the improbable scenario of four friends embarking on an experiment with modern-day slavery. It’s the kind of experimental philosophical puzzle that live theater feels especially suited to exploring.

Four characters—two male, two female; two black, two white—are busy confronting the ways in which their reality is falling short of their aspirations. Leo (Chris Herbie Holland) is a visual artist who’s finding it increasingly impossible to sleep, and therefore create. His girlfriend Dawn (Therese Barbato) is a lawyer who feels like she should be hired as a partner, but doesn’t want to stay with her dead-end firm. Their pals, fellow mixed-race couple Ralph (Nick Dillenburg) and Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly), are similarly frustrated as an adjunct professor passed over for tenure and a livestream personality, respectively. It all feels deliberately mundane.

Chris Herbie Holland (Leo) and Therese Barbato (Dawn) in Berkeley Rep’s production of 'White Noise.' (Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

But mundanity is not a hallmark of Lori-Parks’ work, and almost without warning she has Leo propose the preposterous during a friendly round of bowling. What if he were to sell himself temporarily as a black slave to Ralph, his white friend who just happens to have a large trust fund at his disposal? It’s an audacious proposal that immediately elicits a panicked reaction from his friends. But Leo’s mind is made up; he’s even had a contract drawn up. For the biblically-significant number of 40 days, Leo will exile himself to the wilderness of servitude, and in return, he’ll gain the peace of mind that being under the “protection” of a “big dog” will bring him.

Consent isn't really a central theme in the play, but a question this scenario inadvertently raised for me is: What if the characters had taken the time to include some sort of safeword in Leo’s slave contract? Master-slave relationships are a working reality in the kink community, which might have supplied a blueprint for Leo's idea. Instead, Leo gets his contract drawn up by a lawyer who specializes in prenups. This leads to a series of escalating abuses of power on the part of Ralph that Leo has no way to check, and has not prepared himself mentally to face.

Practically before the ink is dry on the signed contract, Ralph begins adding “amendments” to it, further curtailing Leo’s words, actions, and ability to protest, and granting himself the unconditional permission to “discipline” his new property. Scratch the surface of any frustrated white man and you’ll find a supremacist waiting to emerge, Lori-Parks seems to suggest. Where this production falters is in its effort to make that idea feel revelatory.

Nick Dillenburg (Ralph) and Aimé Donna Kelly (Misha) in Berkeley Rep’s production of 'White Noise.' (Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Under the direction of Jaki Bradley, each character’s emotional disconnect is so profound that even the most charged lines are sapped of strength. When an aggrieved Ralph describes his university’s decision to deny him tenure, he announces that he’ll “kill them all” with the affectless delivery of a man asking for salt. When Leo tries to justify his radical proposal by referencing his “unarticulated self-loathing,” he sounds as if he’s quoting from a textbook on race relations rather than a genuine place of personal pain.

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Even when alone on stage, the actors' character-defining monologues sound partly contrived, partly rote—and whether by accident or design, the play’s downward spiral into depravity feels strangely quotidian. The strongest statements tend to be made visually rather than uttered. An antique slave collar of rusted spikes and malevolent intent. A video projection (designed by Alexander V. Nichols) of the white noise that once helped Leo to sleep, and now prevents him from accessing his creativity—spreading across the walls and eventually encompassing the whole stage. A calendar of 40 days dominating the living area, slashes of a black marker indicating each day closer to freedom.

Nick Dillenburg (Ralph) and Chris Herbie Holland (Leo) in Berkeley Rep’s production of 'White Noise.' (Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

What never feels commonplace are the questions the play tackles. Who are we in relation to each other? How do the traumas of the past carry themselves into the future? What does true liberation look like, and what will it take to get us as a nation to that place? And what are we, who are we, liberating ourselves from? Each other? The system? Our own inflated expectations of what it means to be free?

In the end, we’re confronted by two major transgressions on the part of Ralph, neither of which are forgivable, and one of which is outright criminal. But because we never developed much in the way of empathy for him, nor for Leo, the impact of his crimes is blunted, diffused. Like the white noise referenced in the play’s title, Ralph’s actions feel as if they could just blend into the background. And perhaps that’s the play’s biggest shock—that such blatant evil can feel so ordinary.

'White Noise' plays through Nov. 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Details here.

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