[article originally published at HowlRound, July 30, 2015.]

AZAK set model. Set design by Raul Abrego.
AZAK set model. Set design by Raul Abrego.

What defines a person when all the chips are down and past and present are stripped away? Daniel Talbott’s play, metaphorically titled Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait (AZAK) that concluded its run at the Judson Gym on June 27, 2015, unpacks this question in the guise of a contemporary soldier’s story in an undefined desert location delivered in carefully choreographed beats.

The first surprise is our narrator, a pained unnamed Serbian woman (Jelena Stupljanin) who enters in half-light to spin a horrific tale in the play’s initial monologue. For a while her words pull us off center: she speaks in Serbian for a few minutes before concluding her remarks in English to state absolutely clearly: soldiers killed her family, raped her repeatedly, and refused to kill her.

They raped me every day. They took me to the soldiers and back to the house. Some days it lasted two hours. Some days until morning. The only conversation we had was when I was begging them to kill me. That’s when they laughed. Their response was, “We don’t need you dead.”

Next, we meet several US soldiers in the relentless desert glare—they inhabit the barren place as recent arrivals who expect to be leaving soon. Smith (Seth Numrich) and Leadem (Brian Miskell) have billeted in this bleak outpost for a week or so to await further orders and supplies, and Miller (Chris Stack) who comes along a bit later, is similarly bereft of supplies and the rest of his company. The month or so of the play’s action wears at the men and on us.

We expect this to be a story of survival, male camaraderie—wrestling, jokes, and war time extremes—yet Talbott has other plans for his narrative. Smith conjures an imaginary mother he refers to as Leadem’s mom (Kathryn Erbe) and Leadem recalls his younger brother (Jimi Stanton) and misses simple acts of brotherly affection and competition. Are these ghosts or hallucinations? Have we entered another world? Talbott leaves us to decide. “If you believe in ghosts, they’re ghosts. If you believe in hallucination and science, they’re hallucination and science, or dream life.”

Impulse for the Play: Subways are not for Sleeping
Daniel Talbott, playwright and director for this production, is also an actor, dramaturg, and literary manager, and works in film, stage, and television. The role and the medium may vary from project to project, but his intensity, commitment, investment, and heart (people always mention heart) dominate any project in which he is involved.

A subway realization three years ago led him to ponder the themes that animate AZAK.

I very specifically wanted to write about military war. I felt so detached myself from it, and I was really angry at myself for feeling that way. I don’t agree with war but I absolutely support the people who are making my life possible. I’m very pro soldier. I started researching a bunch of different wars.

He was angry at his own lack of awareness.

All of our luxury and our privilege come on the back and misery of someone else. Everything we do. Someone is getting their fucking head blown off right now and I haven’t thought about it for two months. I try to think about interconnectedness, in the theatre and with everything we do.

Article continues here.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 30, 2015)

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