|“The enemy is not one dimensional.”
Playwright and director Rick Mitchell shines a bright light on the Afghanis struggle to survive in a war torn country in this stark but potent production. Plumbing almost every form of dramatic spectacle with Turkish shadow puppets, catchy musical numbers and light Brechian flourishes, Mitchell weaves a complex story about U.S. colonization into an enjoyable, comedic romp.
A drought forces a devout Afghani wheat farmer, Najib (Ray Haratian) into planting poppy seeds for the drug-ridden regime led by the oily and cunning Gulab (Andrew Qamar Johnson). His daughter, Fatima (Claudia Vazquez), an educated young woman resentful of the burqa escapes her harsh realities by playing with her shadow puppets.
An underhanded American ploy to colonize and ferret out insurgents through a Human Terrain Program lures an unwitting Puerto Rican anthropologist, Fe (Lymari Nadal) into dangerous territory. Guarded by trigger-happy coked out junkie and former Marine, Evan (David Lee Garver), the pair infiltrate and illicit suspicion from the locals. Fe’s compassion and genuine interest in Afghani culture intersects with Fatima and her father’s desperate situation while Evan’s greed and hilarious American commercialization of the pork by-product Spam into Splamb puts him in peril when he goes into business with Gulab.
As Fatima resists an arranged marriage to a 70-year-old letch, Ahmed (Eduardo R. Terry) the Human Terrain Project becomes a concerted effort to save Fatima and bring one small part of Afghani culture from behind the shadows. What remains however is a shattered, appropriated country disillusioned and embittered by the clash of the American and local regimes.
This post-9/11 comedy succeeds with its well-constructed characters performed by an energetic ensemble on a minimalist stage. Mitchell ably fuses a hyper-cultural sensitivity with refreshing humor and biting insight balanced with enough gravity to keep the play from becoming too brash. At times, the play lurches from jolting transitions, but the deft movement and action never allows for a static moment. Arguably, the story suffers from too much intertwining between shadow puppet interludes and the spontaneous eruption of song and dance particularly in the first act, but by the second Mitchell finds his groove. It is, if nothing else, innovative, even at the risk of being somewhat incongruent.
The cast does a terrific job of switching gears mid-scenes with dollops of excellent comedic timing and verve. While the choreography by Allison Bibicoff is simplistic, the foot-stomping tableaus work well in the intimate space. Shadow artist, Maria Bodmann expertly lends an authentic feel to the captivating shadow puppetry that irresistibly steals the show.
“The challenge for anthropologists is to discover without killing.” Much like an anthropologist, Mitchell takes a rather unwieldy subject and uncovers an intricate but dynamic gem.
Note: The humor can be somewhat bawdy and is not recommended for younger audiences.
--M.R. Hunter (eyespylareviews[at]gmail.com)
Photos courtesy of the theatre
Runs through Feb 25
Part of the Company Creation Festival
Son of Semele Theater
3301 Beverly Boulevard
LA, CA 90004
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