Monday, January 30, 2017

Review - Miranda - Illusion Theater - White People Adrift in the Middle East - 4 stars

Miranda has the makings of a great play, so I’m glad Illusion Theater commissioned the script.  Playwright James Still is a multiple nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and you can see evidence of why in Miranda (and also why Illusion Theater has produced five very different plays of his over the years). The script is smart and funny, and it couldn’t ask for a better set of actors to perform it than the ensemble that director Michael Robins has gathered here.  A story of CIA operatives based in the middle eastern country of Yemen in 2014-2015, Miranda keeps revealing different layers in a series of tangled interrelationships between the CIA agents and the local population, both struggling with the threat of civil war in a country overrun by terrorists.

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”

Miranda (Carolyn Pool) rarely uses her real name unless she’s around her CIA supervisor Reed (Steve Hendrickson). Miranda had been working in Jordan until she was caught in the middle of a terrorist bombing there.  Now she's undercover in Yemen.  The physical shock of the bombing has left an occasional ringing in her ears, an injury she uses as a way to cross the path of Dr. Al-Agbhari (Delta Rae Giordano), a Yemeni woman running a health clinic exclusively to serve women in her country.  Since the doctor needs supplies for the clinic, and Miranda needs information, which the doctor can get from her patients, they develop a mutually beneficial working relationship.  Meanwhile, Reed and Miranda’s cover is running a program called Building Bridges, which provides art and learning opportunities for local children.  Their current project involves Shahid (Ricky Morrisseau) and a production of Shakespeare’s Othello.  When things go sideways for the mission, as they have a tendency to do in Yemen, the higher ups at the CIA send in another supervisor, Lauren (Beth Gilleland), to help get things back on track.

“It’s easy to get lost inside a war that’s lost inside a war that’s lost inside a war that’s lost inside a war.”

By the end of act one, things are so up in the air between all the parties that it’s hard to know who to trust, or if there’s any way this is going to end well.  And then a funny thing happens in act two - all the tension gets sucked right out of the play.  All the potentially explosive crosscurrents between people get quickly defused and everything gets tied up in a neat little bow at the end.  And while the relationships between people only get richer and more interesting, and the acting keeps buzzing along at the high quality it had from the very start, you could be forgiven for wondering what the point of it all is.  The heat gets turned down quickly on any life or death stakes.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not lobbying for a nihilistic world view or a conclusion where everyone is lying in a pool of their own blood.  But no actions seem to have any consequences here.  Which is weird, because it’s Yemen.  Things aren’t exactly calm and friendly.  In real life, just like in the play, the escalating terrorist occupation of the country meant that the CIA had to dismantle its operations and pull its people out pretty much altogether in 2015.

“Yemen is a country of many secrets, and no mysteries.”

But the play seems to posit that, hey, as long as our white American intelligence agents emerge unscathed, all is right with the world.  They continue on their personal journeys of discovery and sure, Yemen’s still a mess but hey, what can ya do? It’s the Middle East.

“You have my word.”
“How does that help me?”

Two moments in the second act that happen almost in passing crystallized this odd feeling for me. Sahid walks with a limp, and we finally learn why in act two (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler of any major plot points). He makes a joke that the state bird of Yemen is the drone. That causes Miranda to ask if Sahid was injured in a drone strike. No, it turns out he was a child soldier guarding a checkpoint when a suicide bomber came along. So the play mentions drones, but the bad thing that happens to a character we like isn’t America’s fault, it’s those evil terrorists. Phew, Miranda doesn’t have to feel bad - other than, you know, she’s lying to this kid about who she is and why she’s really in Yemen, and America is still launching drone strikes into the country which usually end up with civilian collateral damage as well as taking out their terrorist target.

“Bin Laden still shows up in my dreams, makes himself right at home, like he lives there.”

Later on, Miranda worries to Lauren about the fate of one of her informants and she is reassured that the informant and their whole family has been safely relocated (offstage, unseen). Good thing the play takes place over a  year ago, because now any Muslim informants helping American intelligence agents would find themselves out of luck - no America for you to escape to and start a new life, but hey, thanks for the help turning against your people.

“Remembering the past, that’s easy.  Imagining a future, that’s work.”

It’s a very white American take on the situation in the Middle East, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  But when someone else’s country is coming apart at the seams, I have difficulty caring about whether Miranda is having a hard time sleeping, or wondering what really happened to her brother on 9/11, etc. At one point, a character opines about, “Paranoia, the great American privilege.”  The agents here have the privilege of not thinking much in terms of life or death in this play because it’s not their home that’s being ripped to shreds.  They still have a place they can go to when it’s all over.  Not when the war is over, mind you, just when their mission is considered done.  They’ll leave the cleanup in the aftermath for the locals to do.  If the characters were more troubled by this, I might not have to be.  Or at least I'd think the play cared about someone other than its white protagonists.

“You cannot wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.”

All that said, the characters are so interesting, the dialogue so sharp and the acting so good, I can almost forgive the world view of the play being mildly out of whack and devoid of genuine consequences.  I want Miranda to continue to grow, and I’m glad Illusion Theater has helped get it this far.  Miranda is still worth seeing.  (now through February 18, 2017 at Illusion Theater)

4 Stars - Highly Recommended

(photo: Steve Hendrickson as Reed, Carolyn Pool as Miranda in Illusion Theater’s production of Miranda; photography by Lauren B Photography)

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