nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 11, 2009
Eight Iraqi civilians, all of whom are now refugees, speak of their lives before, during, and since the 2003 American invasion in Aftermath, in stripped-down, let-the-stories-speak-for-themselves style: Rafiq, a pharmacist; Fouad and Naima, a married couple of cooks; Basima, a young mother from a Christian family; Yassar, a wealthy dermatologist; Asad and Fadilah, a married pair of artists (he a theatre director and professor, she a painter and scenic designer); and Abdul-Aliyy, an imam. The narratives are edited from verbatim translations of transcripts from interviews playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen conducted in Jordan in 2008, which are skillfully linked together and placed into context through the piece's only composite character, a translator who is also a refugee, and who serves as an interlocutor between the other Iraqis and the audience. Blank also directs, with the same kind of simplicity found in the writing.
Other than the married couples, the characters have no connection with one another (only the translator, Shahid, interacts with anyone else), yet the stories are strikingly similar, following a sadly familiar arc—act 1, a life before the war that has taken on a rosy glow in hindsight; act 2, the invasion and its immediate consequences, when things were scary and utterly unfamiliar but bearable as long as they didn't get any worse; and act 3, when things got much, much worse—almost unimaginably awful for many of the characters—leading inexorably to the decision to leave their country. The nature of the final blow is different for each—a car bombing that kills most of a family; an arrest and months of imprisonment in Abu Ghraib; a briefer detention by the Iraqi security forces; pressure from a local militia to inform on neighbors under threat of death; accusations of collaboration with the Americans—but the result is the same.
On the most basic level—as an act of witness, a way to record the testimonies of people whose stories might not otherwise be heard—the play serves an important function, one as much journalistic as artistic. To that end, the playwrights wisely resisted the temptation to select a perfectly representative array of types as their characters, or to pick solely immediately emotionally engaging figures: the doctor in particular (in a wonderful performance by Amir Arison) is often startlingly arrogant and unlikable; the theatre director can be a little full of himself, etc. And the simple process of storytelling is helped by the clean, minimalist production (the set is a row of assorted chairs; most of the visual detail comes in the costumes) and the bracingly unsentimental acting work by the entire ensemble.
Yet the first part of the play seems like the piece might also be aiming to do something more complicated, as well. Through the eyes of Shahid (the engaging Fajer Al-Kaisi, who has a deft touch and a wry humor as something of an emcee), who provides both historical context and a kind of running commentary for the audience, we can see around the edges of these stories; we see how the characters felt about their lives but also how those lives might be patched into a larger picture of Saddam's Iraq, what they might be avoiding or keeping secret, how each is constructing a narrative that is partial and particular. There's a nuance to the level of detail, a specificity to the stories and the lives, up through the period immediately after the invasion.
But as the play progresses—as things start to get really bad for the characters—Shahid's role seems to shift, to become less counterpoint and more simply conduit. At the same time, as the individual stories start to leap across greater stretches of time (where the first section is not time-specific, and the middle deals with a concrete window pegged chronologically to the invasion in March 2003, the last third of the play needs to cover the six-and-a-half years since then and feels rushed in so doing), I felt oddly less connected to the characters. The day-to-day lived realities of their experiences start to tumble toward a crescendo encompassing a series of the most terrible things that happened, each worse than the next, and then almost immediately to a coda, a very brief summation for each character of where they are now and how they carry on.
After a settling-in period with the characters at the start of the play that felt almost leisurely, the rush through to the end, combined with the changing role of the translator, felt like the piece was pushing me away from the characters, at a crucial point. Of course, the desire to capture as much material as possible, to tell as many stories as one can, is an imperative—but I think the piece might have had more of an impact with fewer stories experienced and explored in more detail.