Disarming hate in performance

Written by: Evan Kohne


Is it possible to tackle the oratorical allure of cults without speaking? Reetta Honkakoski Company and From Start To Finnish’s production of The Desk. Set in an unnamed cult, this ensemble work reveals the seductive and dangerous ways cults become so powerful, all without uttering a word during the performance. Based on the actual experiences of Reetta Honkakoski, who plays the cult leader, The Desk is exactly the kind of performance this topic needs.

One of the great dangers in covering topics in public is that their messages are going to reach people through discussion of the topic. News of shootings in America inevitably include controversy over whether the media spread the manifesto and motives of the shooter to others. We rightly worry about the possibility of inspiring others to follow in the shooter’s footsteps.

The Desk largely avoids this problem by never addressing the content of the messages that cults impart on their followers. Rather, the audience only sees how these signals are sent and ingrained in the follower’s minds, and the effect this has on them. This is a thoughtful way to keep the power and themes of the performance. It is much more difficult for someone to come away from this performance with any goodwill or sympathies towards cults, but the audience does leave with an increased understanding about what cults do to their members.

If the cast had used lines instead of movement, having the leader lure the girls in with sweet words, danger would have followed. There is always risk that a few in the audience may hear the show’s lines and be tempted to find that experience for themselves. Instead, the show consciously counters this by avoid the problem entirely, and, in my opinion, making the harm caused by cults all the more clear.

The methods of induction into the cult are shown, and their ability to turn a curious group of young, moldable beings into a lockstep and mindless collective is vividly displayed. The individuality of each girl, originally very well defined, erodes until they are interchangeable. By the end, the curious girl and the obedient girl have become one and the same. The skill of the actors is on display as they can navigate the subtle character traits and show them slowly evaporating.

The power of The Desk comes from the physical use of space to communicate. The shows entirely movement-based storytelling allows for these developments in the plot to be cleverly relayed to a viewer. The leaps of logic that the leader asks of the girls is demonstrated by each performer physically bending over backwards. Their devotion to the leader is shown by constant eye contact and complete obedience of movement. Uncertainty manifests in snuck glances and quizzical looks. All of these elements create a story that is almost impossible to miss.

The Desk’s ability to tell a dangerous story without words should be analyzed by future productions. We cannot be scared into silence on these kinds of topics, but we equally cannot create more harm for our community. The Desk finds the middle ground where it can avoid most danger without compromising its story. I truly hope that the lessons here are carried to other productions. Perhaps then performance will help defeat those that would bring harm to our community.

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