When going to the theater, you have to make quite a few decisions. What will you wear? How will you get there, by Uber or train? Will you go out with your date afterwards for dinner, or will you eat cold leftovers out of the fridge beforehand? Wouldn’t it be easier if someone or something could make all of those minute decisions for you and all you had to do was show up? And what about big decisions? They are even harder to make since so many pros and cons must be weighed. That is the premise of The Compass, a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production set in an all-too-near Big Brotheresque future where you don’t need to think too hard because you have an app on your phone that has studied your online presence well enough to tell you what you would do in any given situation.
It all begins with a TED Talk-type introduction to a product that seems as irresistible as some of our current tech apps. The entrepreneur (Tim Hopper) and the Inventor (Cruz Gonzalaez-Cadel) walk us through a world where a simple app can make our lives just a little more streamlined and easy. The presentation has ominous overtones, but none more than you would pick up at any given tech launch in our current age.
Of course, an app that makes decisions for you is a lawsuit waiting to happen, and within a year of its launch, an incident of misuse occurs when high schooler Marjan (Ariana Burks) makes a poor decision for all the right reasons with the help of her app. Marjan is a good student, and a conscientious kid looking out for her little brother and a loyal friend. But when she finds out that her school as well as her neighborhood are gun riddled, she feels unsafe and decides to take action to protect her brother and fellow students in a situation that seems to be escalating beyond anyone’s control, in part thanks to her lifelong over-enthusiastic pal Chaz (Johnathan Nieves).
The ensuing court case cleverly unravels before us, with the prosecution and the defendant appealing directly to the audience—it turns out we are part of the jury. The audience is divided into 10 groups, each seated in color-coordinated regions. For every 10 or 15 minutes of story, the plot is then frozen and a juror who will represent each of our groups in the play comes down to our seated area, talks to us for a few minutes about what we think of the events, the evidence and so on. They ask us many questions and take good notes. “Is the defendant responsible for her own actions?” “Does the Compass act simply like a machine giving you data or does it act more like a drug, eroding your ability to know right from wrong?” Since the defendant admits to the crime and explains her reasons, the whole case hinges on whether or not the app could have caused her to act, making her not responsible for the crime. The debate in our group was heated and people were eager to share their position, but one of the unfortunate problems with this method of communicating was that our group of 20 people were competing with the other 10 groups to be heard in a crowded theater, and only those close to the juror were truly able to hear every word she said. From my position in our group, I could only hear some of her questions and certainly none of my fellow group members’ answers since they were facing away from me. Our juror did her best to repeat what they said back to us, but it was a tricky and frustrating position to be in.
The director and devisor Micheal Rohd described his process in an interview in the program. He started out with a simple idea of making a play about decision making and reverse-engineered the story from that. Rohd’s long background as founding artistic director of Sojourn Theatre has given him the opportunity to focus on civic and social issues over the years and The Compass fits in with this world view seamlessly. Thus it is more a play about societal dilemma than it is a nuanced drama. That said, the cast does a fair job embodying their characters, especially the lead Marjan, whose youthful vulnerability makes it difficult for us to condemn her to the mandatory two-year prison sentence the law would inflict upon her. The prosecutor (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) is an intimidating force in logic though, and her arguments are as solid as her lawyerly presence.
In the end, our jurors retreat from our group to the stage, where they deliberate and eventually decide the defendant’s guilt or innocence based solely on our votes, even using our own words during their brilliant and amusing debate. And I’ll admit, as difficult as it was to make a decision based on the case, it did feel better than farming the decision out to a 3rd party application and it was a great conversation starter around the topic of justice and the law. So ultimately, The Compass achieved its goal of facilitating an entertaining and thought-provoking civic conversation between the generations.
The Compass runs at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, until March 12 in the downstairs theater. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students. It is recommended for ages 12 and up.