theater (reviews)

review: two rooms

[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-TWOROOMS.html]

TWO ROOMS

by Lee Blessing
Directed by Monica Wilson
Theatre Entropy at No Exit Cafe
6970 N. Glenwood / (773) 505-6766
www.theatreentropy.org
Through February 3, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
January 26, 2007

Two Rooms” has had numerous productions since its first in 1988. One can legitimately ponder the ways in which this play that centers on the experience of an American hostage, his wife, a journalist, and a State Department official during a time almost two decades prior to September 11, 2001 plays differently now in the United States after that pivotal cultural and political and experiential divide. And perhaps the ways in which the play resonates, as many pieces of good theatre, grows with the times, given changing times. This Theatre Entropy production has a striking lack of dramaturgical contextual materials on the walls of the theatre or in the program. We join our characters in their time, in their places, set in the mid 1980s, as an audience in the United States with all of our specific historical experience of the past five years, including crumbling towers and our own officially sanctioned hostage taking in military prisons. We join this play on its own terms but with our own particular and specific immediate historical context, which the production does not attempt to disentangle. Lee Blessing is a playwright who takes edgy and unlikable characters and allow us as an audience to care about them — he engaged with the irascible professional baseball player Ty Cobb in “Cobb“, for example, in 1989, and a pair of arms negotiators (one Russian and one American) in “A Walk in the Woods” in 1986. He tackles in this play the conflicting human and public/political sides of small and large terrorist acts, and it is a stunning text.

The play artfully uses the metaphor of natural selection as a source of hope and a very theatrical construct. American teacher Michael (Brian Troyan) is held captive, blindfolded, confined in a bare cell room (or series of rooms) as hostage in Beirut. Michael’s naturalist American wife Lanie (Sarah Ibis), returns after the kidnapping to the Washington, DC area (precise coordinates never specified) and creates a duplicate room in her home as a place to commune with the missing Michael. The theatre in this piece is in how the characters in these two spaces do or do not interact. Three of our characters communicate in real-time: Lanie, the angry and solitary American wife; Walker (John Wehrman) an American journalist hungry for an expose of the actions and inactions of the State Department on behalf of Michael; and Ellen (Melissa Freiman) the State Department drone and caseworker for Lanie, who has some of the most resonantly haunting lines speaking of the rational interests of government that often act irrationally against the interests of the individual hostages and their families. Our fourth character Michael is alone in his cell talking to himself and to his wife, through the verbal “letters” her writes to her. Several characters interact in fantasy, especially Michael and Lanie in each other’s visions. One surprise is that Michael the hostage interacts in a dream of his state department caseworker Ellen. “We’re not required to see you as real”, she says. The journalist Walker does not bother focusing on Michael individually, but on the voice of his wife. Walker looks only at Lanie, and when he finally gets from her what he has been trying to obtain for several years (her voice in several interviews talking about the delays by the State Department in Michael’s case), he moves on, willingly. Lanie has served her purpose.

This troupe of young actors makes stalwart efforts with this difficult and nuanced text. Sarah Ibis as Lanie is perhaps too earnest and plaintive, without the gravitas yet to pull off the role. I found myself pulled out of moments continually during her performance when this was not the case with the other members of the company. But this will come for her; she is a charming on-stage presence.

Director Monica Wilson and dramaturg Erin Jones create projections representing mid-1980s political hostages and events to augment the story telling at key junctures. The spareness of the set and costuming, for the most part, allows for a universal late 20th century feeling. One quibble: the journalist’s one outfit appears to be a leisure suit circa mid-1970s rather than the more probable attire for such a character of a photographers/fisherman’s multi-pocketed vest or other outfit out of fabrics found in nature. Yes quibble, but in this sparely dressed set and with spared costumed actors, each choice stands out.

The No Exit Café performance space is perfect to evoke the world of this play: run down and urban, rooms along a non touristy side street in Beirut or Tel Aviv or suburban Washington (or Baghdad). In this space minimalism rules and lighting designer Adam Derda and set designer Lisa Smeltzer have created much out of little. Four gelled theatrical lights and one visible projector signal some production elements. The primary lighting design is eight or nine ordinary spotlights that edge the rectangular slightly raised playing space, highlighted by a bare bulb suspended center stage, waiting to be illuminated. During the preshow and interval sections, vaguely and pleasantly Middle Eastern musical comes from behind and around the audience area. Our eyes and ears gradually grow accustomed to this world.

The play feels dated and current at the same time. Images from twenty years ago flashed as part of the show remind us of the power and resonance of the particular hostages during this particular phase of the Middle East struggles and factions. We are reminded of names of individual hostages who survived and many who did not, and the reaction is multilayered. We wonder: do we really have memories that are this time-limited, or are these names and these details foggy in our memories because similar struggles have continued, unabated, in the ensuing years in the Middle East and the American response has changed due to events that have occurred closer to home in the ensuing years? This is disturbing and intriguing and powerful theatre. The production values perfectly serve the play and the play speaks for itself. This is a play worth hearing and it should be performed regularly. Thank you Theatre Entropy, for staging it for us, in this place, at this time. This is a play worth revisiting regularly.

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 26, 2007)

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