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‘COINTELSHOW’ Review: An Ironic and Innovative Look into FBI Interference

"COINTELSHOW: A Patriot Act" presented by ArtsEmerson
"COINTELSHOW: A Patriot Act" presented by ArtsEmerson By Courtesy of ArtsEmerson
By Emma H. Lu, Contributing Writer

“If you see something… put it in the chat,” Special Agent Christian White said.

He grinned as he encouraged audience members to surveil one another with a cheeky version of “see something, say something.” Played by Bruce France, Special Agent White was the sole performer in “COINTELSHOW: A Patriot Act,” a political satire written by playwright L.M. Bogad about COINTELPRO, the real-life FBI counterintelligence program operating from 1956 to 1971. Presented by ArtsEmerson and directed by Nick Slie and Dan Pruksarnukul from multidisciplinary art company Mondo Bizarro Productions, “COINTELSHOW” was adapted to a Zoom format and took advantage of the platform’s features to create a uniquely immersive experience, leaving audience members hungry to learn more about our country’s hidden history.

“COINTELSHOW” follows Special Agent White, an FBI official for public relations, as he brings the audience on a tour through COINTELPRO. The program aimed to sabotage and repress activists such as Fred Hampton and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as domestic political groups like the American Indian Movement, Black Panther Party, and Communist Party U.S.A. Special Agent White is tailored effectively as a convincing authoritative figure as he appears primly-dressed in a suit and tie, maintains a charismatic smile, and delivers carefully-curated, propaganda-esque speech. Yet, as he comically strives to defend authentic examples of incriminating COINTELPRO documents, audience members can see the true sinister nature of the program.

While virtual theater may initially seem disengaging, “COINTELSHOW” overwhelmingly avoided this issue through Special Agent White’s direct address to the audience throughout the play. As audience members were asked to scrutinize one another and watch for suspicious behavior, “COINTELSHOW” ironically leveraged the audience in the same way that it implies the FBI does in actuality.

Moreover, audience interaction was impressively initiated before the play began. Prior to its start, attendees were asked to fill out a pre-show audience survey — gathering feedback just as a government agency may often do. Audience members then became part of the bureaucratic process as their responses were reviewed during the show. This parody not only added comedic value to the production, but also generated further interest and unity from the audience, as attendees watched their peers attentively and saw themselves reflected in the presentation.

“COINTELSHOW” also took advantage of Zoom’s features to construct its setting. Despite the lack of a physical set, virtual backgrounds transported Special Agent White to specific time periods in history. The eerie atmosphere was established with sudden transitions to and from Zoom “breakout rooms,” as audience members anxiously braced for what might pop up next. Live and pre-recorded elements were integrated seamlessly as Special Agent White conducted his real-time PR presentation in real-time one moment, but was transported to a physically manufactured landscape — a site filmed prior — at the next. These tactics allowed for the plotline to be more flexible in incorporating historic flashbacks or imaginative representations to illustrate remote scenarios and issues effectively.

Although “COINTELSHOW” offered a masterful, creative use of an online format, the execution, at times, left much to be desired. The plotline, for instance, felt disjointed at times. The show consisted of various, distinct segments which occasionally lacked sufficient convincing setup and were not always well-integrated, making it difficult to determine how to understand these pieces.

In addition, while most segments were inventive and amusing, they sometimes felt too on-the-nose. Special Agent White beseeching a “right to privacy” when encountering a transcript of his every unfiltered thought directly to the audience, or suffering a “cold war” within his own skull between his left and right brain, was grimly entertaining, but it was a bit too plainly ironic in execution as the critical takeaways were unnecessarily spelled out for audience members.

While the satirical aspects may not have landed perfectly with the audience, the message was certainly received. From a plethora of creative settings and interspersed media to tactics for audience engagement, “COINTELSHOW” brought a humorous, intriguing spin to this part of American history, challenging attendees to examine these structures for activist disruption and political surveillance readily accepted today.

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