Palace of the End
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
June 19, 2008
As the curtain call ended, a stranger said to me "That was INTENSE. I mean, God. Wow!" This is a fair way to sum up Judith Thompson's new play Palace of the End, presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble under the direction of Daniella Topol. Palace of the End is about the situation in Iraq from three different perspectives. According to the program "Epic Theatre Ensemble is a company of Citizen-Artists using theater to inspire dialogue about vital social, ethical, and political issues." This is one ambitious company and Palace of the End really delivers on their mission.
Thompson's play is rich in ideas and images yet simple in structure. It contains three long monologues that are thematically related yet inhabit completely separate space and time on stage. They happen sequentially, like three separate acts.
The first monologue titled "My Pyramids" is told by "Lynndie" (aka Lynndie England) who is working a desk job while awaiting trial for her conduct at Abu Ghraib. The piece is a dissection of a bully's psyche. She has apparently always been insecure and desperate to be accepted. She has endured the hazing of her peers her whole life and feels victorious when she can be tough and compassionless too. Though afflicted by pangs of discomfort when she does hurtful things, she believes that she did what was necessary in Abu Ghraib to gain information from the detained Iraqis to protect America's freedom.
The second monologue is called "Harrowdown Hill," in which we see the former British weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly hiding out in the woods awaiting death after he has taken pills and sliced his wrists. He explains how he was pressured to tell lies about WMDs to keep his job. When the destruction of the war hits home, he finds the courage to unleash the truth and all the persecution that he feared is unleashed on him in turn.
The third monologue is called "Instruments of Yearning," told by Nehrjas Al Saffarh—the only non-Internet-headline figure in the play. Al Saffarh was a teacher, mother and wife of a leader of the Iraqi Communist Party during the Baathist Revolution who with her sons was brutally tortured in Saddam Hussein's prison castle (called the Palace of the End). She describes with fierce pride how much ghastly violence they endured in front of each other to protect her husband and not betray their friends to the enemy. After irreparable damage to her family, her husband is found and killed anyway and she is summarily released. She died later during Desert Storm and shares her story with us from an optimistic ghostly state of being after death.
The set by Mimi Lien is beautiful and creates three distinct spaces for each actor to perform in. The effect is both realistic and other-worldly. Each character floats in his/her own insular world as if speaking to the audience from a bizarre, bad-dream, purgatory. Indeed, both Lynndie and Dr. Kelly talk about falling through the "looking glass" and all of the characters are haunted by consciences and consequences in their dreams. Courage is also a big theme, to both inspiring and horrifying effects. Kudos to the production team for keeping these three monologues connected in the same play!
Topol comes to Palace of the End fresh from Sand, another challenging play about the Iraq war which she directed earlier this year for the Women's Project. She does a wonderful job keeping everything clean, simple, and accessible in a piece that deals with such complex issues and mind-spinning atrocities. The acting is amazing. Rocco Sisto brings a wealth of humanity, frustration, and delicacy to Dr. Kelly. Heather Raffo as Al Saffarh is so full of zest, strength, and good humor that she leaves no room for self-pity and contains only the tiniest flecks of doubt. Hers is a very effective and exciting performance that will stay with me a long time. Teri Lamm holds her own as Lynndie and has many great moments, yet I couldn't help seeing hints of a liberal, educated actress peeking out from behind her character. Lamm also has the toughest job. It is easier for a New York theatre audience to see the other two characters as heroes, even with their flaws, while we see Lynndie with more distance, more irony, and much less compassion.
It was surreal to walk down the neon mega-watt 42nd Street to my train after the show. Is this the America that Lynndie England thought she was protecting? The David Kelly character says that the greatest sin of our age is to know something and pretend that we don't, so that our lifestyles aren't inconvenienced in any way. The contrast between this lifestyle and these horrific situations elsewhere seemed newly alarming in tourist-central Midtown. Epic Theatre Ensemble and each of Thompson's characters challenge us to own our place as "citizens," to take action and stand up for something. That woman sitting next to me was right, this show is intense!