Monday, October 31, 2011

Betrayed – Story: George Packer

By Joe Straw

I’m a little confused by this title and slightly betrayed.  (Only slightly.)  The press notes indicates it’s “written by George Packer” but the program says something slightly different, “Story:  George Packer”.

Whitmore Eclectic presents Betrayed – Story:  George Packer, directed by Andrew Verderame, at the Lyric Theatre in Hollywood through November 13, 2011 is a wonderful production with fantastic performances.   

It is about a subject matter that, to this day, I do not understand:  The invasion of Iraq, the loss of American and Iraqi lives, and the idea that the American taxpayers are and have been footing this bill.  (Let’s see if my political leanings can get me into trouble.)

This show is brutally honest with graphic videos and sound design, by Aliah Whitmore, and is not for the squeamish. As James Whitmore, Jr. introduces the show he says that if you’re offended, “Don’t look.” 

Self-censorship is protected under the First Amendment.

Adnan (Pasha Bocarie) is a man who doesn’t fit in. His day-to-day existence was selling cigarettes on Mutanabi Street in old Baghdad and it was a life he was reluctant to live.  With the overthrow of Saddam Hussein he has thoughts of redirecting the focus of his life without morbid thoughts of thanatopsis.

Adnan has a rendezvous with his friend Laith (Peter Sabri) in a hotel.  It has taken both of them days to get there.  

Sadly, Laith is living on the edge.  He has been getting threatening calls and wants to leave the country.  But an unsuccessful attempt to cross the border results in his fake passport being confiscated.  His objective is to reach Bill Prescott (Andrew Patton), a state Department official, and an old friend from their Green Zone days, and have him arrange his way out.   He can’t do this without the help from his friend, Adnan.

Thus begins a series of flashback where Adnan and Laith reminiscence about how they got to this point in their lives.  Starting with how they came to work for the State Department. 

With Laith it is interpreting for a soldier Jason (Robert Fabiani) and his unit.  But Adnan goes directly to the Green Zone to apply for a job.  As he is there he runs into Intisar (Aliah Whitmore) who is also applying for a position.

After Adnan is accepted, he is taken to a Regional Security Officer (Dustin Seavey) who interrogates him using the modern up-to-date, inadmissible-in-court, lie detector.

In the meantime Prescott accepts Intisar.  Adnan goes back to have lunch with Laith and tells him he has secured Laith an interview.

All three are issued yellow badges and are sworn in by the RSO who instructs them on the finer points of the Green Zone and the Red Zone.

“What is the Red Zone?” – Intisar

“The Red Zone…it’s what’s outside the Green Zone.” – RSO

“You mean – Iraq?” – Intisar

“Congratulations and welcome to the American mission in Baghdad.” – RSO

The three become working friends and discuss their dreams of the future in five years but things start going awry.  Intisar makes a big mistake by agreeing to appear on non-stop TV news feeds to Iraq and Washington.

The Iraqis are also becoming suspicious of this trio.  Our three heroes approach Prescott to get green badges because they feel their lives are in danger waiting in the streets to get into the compound.   The SRO denies their request for and when this happens Intisar is gun down in the streets of Baghdad.

Next time, Adnan and Laith go directly to the Ambassador (Craig Braun) to get green badges because they feel their lives are in danger. Again, the SRO denies their request.

Prescott is so fed up he asks Adnan and Laith to take him to a restaurant, somewhere in Baghdad.  They do so and while they are there he asks Laith to find an Iraqi leaders to open a dialogue. 

“What we hear is they refuse to talk to the occupiers.” – Prescott

“Some of them want to.  There are differences within them.  But they need a channel.” – Laith

“… O.K. Open up a back channel and we’ll see what happens.” – Prescott 

Laith does so and this mistake gets him into a lot of trouble.

This story highlights the differences between men and women, Americans and Iraqis, and finally Shia and Sunni with seemingly no resolution on the conflicts either now or in the near future. Setting all this aside this is a very fine cast and exceptional performances all around. 

Pasha Bocarie as Adnan is excellent. There is a very nice truth to his craft.  It is understated and not overly emotional as the character seeks a path that is different than his counterpart.  Adnan is a man who wants to continue to live in Iraq.  He has no thoughts of leaving, and he will do what is necessary to survive.  His performance was marvelous.

Peter Sabri as Laith was also excellent.  He is an actor who is always in the moment and feels his emotion moments to his core.    As Laith, he follows a path that leads him to make a lot of mistakes.  His overriding trust in his fellow human being, be they American or Iraqi, gets him into a lot of trouble.  Which is why he is fighting for his life.  Still, Sabri needs to recognize his mistakes and make more of the moments that give creation to his downward spiral.  This will only add to an already very terrific performance.

Andrew Patton as Prescott was marvelous.  Last seen in Moby Dick Rehearsed this role was a chameleon-like transformation in character.  And as the character, he is a man out of place, out of his time and element. Try as he might he cannot overcome that which is his inept government.  But, guilty by association, this must included his own ineptitude caused by his own actions of which he is unaware.  First, he throws Intisar in front of a camera feed that goes out to who knows where, publicly displaying her image.  Secondly, he sends Laith out to try to find the enemy unaware of havoc he is creating.   Although he is unmindful of all of the problems he has caused, in the end, he wants to make good and it is this force of rightness that sends him out frantically trying to save his friends.  This was a job well done. 

Aliah Whitmore as Intisar delivers an exceptional performance complete with Iraqi accent.  As the character she fights against the inequality of women in her country.  This gets her into a lot of trouble, which she is not able to overcome.  Still she fights for what is right even if it means paying the ultimate price. 

Dustin Seavey plays the Regional Security Officer who does his job efficiently, possibly a little too efficiently.   It’s a nice job for a humorless role.  This trick to the role (and yes, there are tricks) is to find the moment that is going to give the character the human touch rather than just seeing “the machine” that is his job.  Still, this was a very good performance.

Craig Braun as the Ambassador (October 13-14) was slightly nervous on this particular night.  It was a nice performance that needed the “thing” that makes him the Ambassador.  Tim Dezarn was not playing the Ambassador the night I was there.

Robert Fabiani as the Soldier Jason did a nice job as a person who is overwhelmed with his job.  His nerves are frayed the longer he stays in Iraq.  He has come to the point where he does not trust anyone, even friends.  And will just as soon rifle butt you in the head if you look at him the wrong way.  This is a solid performance by a wonderful actor.

Haaz Sleiman did an admirable job as the Dialect Coach and was the Dishdasha Man and Correspondent number one.

Max Siam was the Cursing Man and Eggplant Face (Abu Abbas).

Andrew Verderame, the director, has done a marvelous job with this show. His actors were exceptional and the direction was exceptional and overall very enjoyable. While most plays tell a story using a narrative and the narrative is a specific period of time, George Packard’s play/story focuses on the use of flashback.  Not my favorite way of telling a story in most mediums but not impossible to pull off if the life and death moments out of the hotel room pull us in to the dramatic moments into the hotel room.

Maybe it was opening weekend, or something else, but the action seemed to start and stop the moment we go back into the hotel.  Also, we as an audience need to consider what is behind the hotel room door and should not forget that at any single moment someone may come in and take the characters away, for good.  Focus on a time element with life or death as the dramatic conclusion.  We should never forget that someone is coming for them and it is only a question of when.

Just as an aside, the program to the play is an outstanding comic book like program.  No credit is given to the person, or persons responsible for this wonderful program.  It says a lot about the commitment Whitmore Eclectic pays to the actors, director and the rest of the staff. 

Go!  This is a very good show about a powerful subject matter.  And take a Marine with you, he or she may have something more to say.  

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