nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 18, 2005
There are some stories that must be told, must he heard. Riverbend's is one: she's a blogger, an Iraqi woman who has been communicating her thoughts about what's been going on around her since August 2003, five months after the United States invaded her country. She's achieved a degree of celebrity, this anonymous woman who was 24 when she began sharing her world on the Internet. Her entries are being collected and published in a book in May, and they are now condensed and dramatized as Baghdad Burning, an uncompromisingly earnest play by Kim Kefgen and Loren Ingrid Noveck, on stage now at the West End Theatre.
The play, like the blog, demands everyone's attention. It recounts 18 months of events, trivial and momentous; traces the destruction of a nation and portends countless human traumas. It's the nakedest kind of mirror for Americans, who can certainly remember the day, only two years ago, when this war began but who, mostly so insulated from it now, have packed away the strong feelings we once had about it and now take it for granted. Baghdad Burning reminds us that war can never be taken for granted. With Glyn O'Malley's Paradise, coincidentally also running in New York this month, it shows us war's human face—the countless awful ways that rampant, ceaseless, careless violence uproot and upend ordinary people. No electricity. No water. Terrible noise of airplanes overhead. Craters where streets and buildings used to be. No security. As time passes, less and less hope.
I could see the tip of Abu Maan’s cigarette
glowing in the yard next door.
Abu Maan can’t sleep either…
It’s probably Maan.
Maan is only 13… How can he be smoking? He’s only 13.
Is anyone only 13 anymore?
We’re living, this moment, the future we were afraid to contemplate six months ago...
This play poses many useful questions—about the new leadership of Iraq, about the seeming callous indifference of the American military toward Iraqi people and Iraqi culture, about what may happen to females as the country moves, perhaps, toward fundamentalist Islam rule. The most important ones are the most essential: how did this happen? How did we let this happen? How do make sure this never happens again? Baghdad Burning is about the ruination of a country; the 75 minutes we spend looking at it through a first-hand observer's eyes are absolutely invaluable.
Kefgen and Noveck have done a remarkable job creating this script. I looked through Riverbend's blog—my interest greatly piqued from having seen the play—and I am enormously impressed at the playwrights' skill in culling, from hundreds of pages of entries, such powerful and compelling material and stitching it together so effectively. Riverbend is articulate and often eloquent, but her medium—i.e., the Web—is colloquial and informal and repetitive; making her work stageworthy is no small feat. They've arranged the passages as dialogue for four voices, and Kefgen has provided staging that adds variety and even occasionally imposes a bit of narrative structure to the piece. Some of her ideas work better than others—a segment where the speakers interact as Riverbend's family would is very effective, for example, while another sequence in which the actors march in circles felt like abstraction for its own sake. In a few places, she manages some arresting visual imagery, notably when the company re-enacts the burial of a murdered Iraqi man whose body was discovered by his family months after his disappearance.
The four actors—Becca Blackwell, Deepti Gupta, Cassandra Vincent, and Andrew Zimmerman—demonstrate great commitment and teamwork.
Baghdad Burning is not a great play—certainly no more so than Riverbend's blog is great literature. That does not detract, however, from its significance—particularly at this particular historical moment—as valuable, worthy theatre. Humanism feels endangered these days; the messages about authentic civilization and freedom embedded in Baghdad Burning feel very necessary right now. Six Figures Theatre Company is to be commended for giving this voice a new platform from which to be heard. Audiences owe it to them to listen.