“Action at a Distance” is a Swiftian tale of how to profit from military murder

By Lucy Komisar

This play is a satiric modest proposal that appears inspired by Jonathan Swift‘s 1729 essay of how one could benefit from catastrophe. If you recall, Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland, from Being a Burden on their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick.” To deal with the great poverty in Ireland, he suggested that the Irish eat their children.

Dom Luck as Josh, Rosa Caines as Chris, photo Molly-Rose Curran.

Playwright Rory Horne in a modern version suggests an ingenious way of benefiting from civilian deaths in Syria caused by America drones by using data analysis and the Internet. The director is Nina Cavaliero, who here eschews fantasy for realism.

We are in Boulder City where Christine (Rosa Caines) connects via an on-line dating service to Josh (Dom Luck). Josh, out of school for about ten years, is a data analyst for a tech company. He voted for Obama “the first time.” We see a projection of Obama as Josh says, “The government admitted to 181 casualties; it was ten or 15 times that.”

He knows, because nights and weekends, he does data analysis of the drone killing of civilians. He communicates with people on the spot assessing the damage. Collateral damage, otherwise known as murder. He does this for a charity called “Conflict Clarity.” He‘s concerned about “what‘s being done in our name as Americans.”

Rosa Caines as Chris, photo Molly-Rose Curran.

Josh tells Chris that an internet gambling site is using his data, with people betting on how many people will be killed in the next attack. And he has figured out how to game that to raise money for Conflict Clarity.

He looks at TV news to make informed decisions. He maps the movements of attacks. He sees where the militants are going. He uses information about population density, past attacks and the plotted paths of missiles. There‘s an offensive in eastern Aleppo. Medical facilities will be gone in a week. Short odds.

He is exhausted from all the hours. Chris, 29, is a plumber but hasn‘t gotten work in a while, because she is being undercut in price. Her mother Dolores (Nina Cavaliero) has cancer but fell through the gaps in Obamacare. Chris gets Josh to teach her how to do the betting and take over the task.

They have to use encrypted systems. “How a you tell if you‘re being watched?” she asks. “Devices are mis-functioning.

Rosa Caines as Chris photo Molly-Rose Curran.

As she gets confident, her bets go up. She writes the numbers on the floor in chalk. Results are spewed out of a printer. She takes a piece of the profits for her mother‘s medical care. (Dolores plays only a small role, in which she is curiously hostile towards her daughter. It distracts.)

Another strike, casualties unconfirmed. But a family of seven, husband, wife — elementary school teachers — and five kids died. Chris is pleased, “I won 90 bucks.” Safe bets are Aleppo, Mosul, Raqqa.

Later she becomes distraught, “Dead children. That is what you are making money from.” Replace internet gamblers with arms companies and private military contractors. And the members of Congress who receive their campaign contributions.

Caines and Luck are good in their roles, and the premise is clever. It takes a while to get to that — the opening internet dating part goes on for about 15 minutes too long – I wondered if I was at the wrong show. But otherwise this young playwright (he seems in his 20s) is at the start of an interesting career.

Action at a Distance.” Written by Rory Horne, directed by Nina Cavaliero. Argonaut Theatre Company at Zoo Southside, Edinburgh Festival Fringe. August 2017. 8/18/17.

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