Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Big One Weighs In On "Terrorists"

Somehow I didn't expect this review in the Big Paper to come out on a Tuesday. I went for a Ladies Lunch with my oldest friend in Brookline. She and her husband have been living in Vermont for the last 4 years-- during which time I saw her only once. We caught up with family gossip, and compared our recent musical experiences in our current choirs. Jeanne and I were in the Arlington Street Church choir and its associated Light Opera Group -- mostly Gilbert & Sullivan, with the occasional opera or Broadway musical -- for 25 years. When the Opera Group dissolved we went separate ways, I to the West Newton UU church and she to Brookline's. I knew that the review was out and I meant to buy some extra copies of the paper and give one to Jeanne so that she could read about "Terrorists", but we were so tangled in nostalgia we lost track of the time and I forgot to go to the newstand. Maybe she'll read it here:

The Boston Globe
Sugan's play probes roots of terrorism

By Ed Siegel, Globe Staff | March 21, 2006

Talking to terrorists is the last thing many Americans want to do, or want their leaders and media to indulge in. At the same time, aren't we obligated to know what drives human beings to become monsters? Mustn't we find ways to end cycles of violence wherever possible?

It's the proverbial dirty job, and the someone who had to do it was British playwright Robin Soans, together with the Out of Joint and Royal Court theaters in England.

Soans and Out of Joint director Max Stafford-Clark, who was chiefly responsible for the great ''Macbeth" in Holyoke last year, interviewed terrorists about why they did what they did. They also talked with some terrorist victims.

The daring Sugan Theatre Company decided to bring ''Talking to Terrorists," the play that resulted, to America, where it's making its US premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts. Sugan has done a superb job of assembling a cast of eight actors who fully animate the play's assortment of Western officials, Third World and European revolutionaries, and victims of terrorism.

If the result has the same failings of most documentary theater -- theater that relies on transcriptions of interviews -- it's mostly the fault of the genre, not the production.

The best part is the ensemble. Director Carmel O'Reilly's cast ranges from youthful actors loaded with potential (Eve Kagan and Mason Sand) to accomplished veterans such as Geralyn Horton. Dafydd Rees (''Gagarin Way") fully inhabits characters as diverse as Terry Waite, the Anglican envoy held for more then four years in Lebanon, and ''Brighton Bomber" Patrick Magee, who killed five people and injured 34 others at a Conservative Party conference in England. (Ideally, there should be more color in the cast, and more personality to J. Michael Griggs's set.)

''Talking to Terrorists" introduces us to people and places Americans would just as soon not know about, such as China Keitetsi, a Ugandan girl (Kagan) who survived as a guerrilla fighter by hacking off the limbs of government soldiers and submitting sexually to rebel leaders.

But hearing more than 2 1/2 hours of the horrors that led people to become terrorists and the atrocities they committed afterward does not have the emotional resonance one might think.

As in ''The Exonerated," about innocent people wrongly convicted of murder, and ''The Laramie Project," about the killing of Matthew Shepard, the testimony begins to sound like a litany of woes, rather than a drama shaped by artistry, ambiguity, and insight.

At some point, it also begins to sound like a lecture. Capital punishment is bad. Homophobia is bad. Poverty is bad. Violence begets violence. Terrorists are ordinary people driven to ultra-violence.

Soans peppers his material with conservative voices -- Norman Tebbit, for example, a member of Parliament whose wife was permanently disabled by the Brighton bomb -- but the message seems to be coming mostly from the anti-Bush-and-Blair political pole.

The problem isn't the message, but its repetitiveness and the constant scene-shifting. Documentary theater that works -- David Hare's ''Via Dolorosa" and Anna Deavere Smith's ''Twilight: Los Angeles" -- tend to have a narrower focus than ''Talking to Terrorists."

Fortunately, the Sugan troupe makes the material interesting and instructive even if it isn't dramatic and emotionally involving. Given the larger society's lack of will to talk about the issues associated with terrorism, ''Talking to Terrorists" is a dialogue worth pursuing.


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