Scripted chaos onstage

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday April 26, 2017
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Damien Seperi portrays a fictional version of playwright<br>Said Sayrafiezadeh as an acting troupe tries to present his play <i>Autobiography<br>of a Terrorist</i> in a world premiere at Potrero<br>Stage. Photo: Vahid Zamani
Damien Seperi portrays a fictional version of playwright
Said Sayrafiezadeh as an acting troupe tries to present his play Autobiography
of a Terrorist
in a world premiere at Potrero
Stage. Photo: Vahid Zamani

There is a faux program with made-up casting info for the play within the play. Actors frantically switch roles to avert one crisis or another. The not-always-pretty backstage mechanics of theater-making is often revealed, while the calm voice of a stage manager making unhelpful announcements over the P.A. system belies the transpiring chaos. If this sounds familiar, perhaps you've had a recent encounter with Noises Off, Michael Frayn's comic farce about a bedeviled theater troupe putting on a play that isn't quite ready for primetime. While all of the above situations are also played for laughs in Autobiography of a Terrorist, those laughs aren't the end goal for Said Sayrafiezadeh's new play in its world premiere at Potrero Stage under the aegis of Golden Thread Productions.

Sayrafiezadeh is an American writer born in New York to an Iranian father and a Jewish mother, who gained notice when his memoir When Skateboards Will Be Free won the Whiting Award in 2010. At heart, Autobiography of a Terrorist is also a memoir, although the vase holding his memories is now smashed and it is the cast's job to work with the scattered shards. Actually, not the real cast, but the characters they are playing in a play also titled Autobiography of a Terrorist .

"This is not a finished play," one of the characters tells us at the start as the faux cast gathers for a strained pep talk with the audience. It is "a collage of scenes" further explains the make-believe playbill. That much is true, for the play emphasizes its bits-and-pieces nature by announcing scenes in numerical order with a bell rung between, and at least at first, with the cast exchanging congratulatory hugs. Those hugs begin to fade as shadowy censors force changes in the script, and banish the playwright (portrayed by Damien Seperi) from playing himself in the series of episodes about the unwanted political implications of having the name Said Sayrafiezadeh in America " especially with the Iran hostage crisis that began in 1979. Sayrafiezadeh was an oblivious 10-year-old when he found that "my certificate of whiteness was revoked."

The play is at its best when depicting episodes that have their basis in confessional fact. There's an incident when the young Sayrafiezadeh joins his playmates in tormenting a young Iraqi boy, new to the neighborhood, who wants to make friends. The play can slide off the rails from time to time, such as in a follow-up scene that is described as "a metaphorical vision of what life became like in 1979" as a husband and wife enact what a narrator acknowledges is unbearably broad melodrama.

But in the third scene " "This one is real," says Sayrafiezadeh " events move ahead 20 years to a casting office where the aspiring actor is auditioning for a commercial. The casting agents want a stereotypical Aladdin-like figure in a ridiculous turban to dance while extoling the virtues of a brand of donuts before declaring, "Get jiggy with it." There's the fantasy version of the audition where Sayrafiezadeh rebels against the stereotype, and then the reality where he takes the job.

But this "collage of scenes" can't fully sustain its uneven journey into more surreal territory. There's the arrival of Kermit Roosevelt, an intelligence officer who helped orchestrate the 1953 coup that installed US-friendly Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was happy to let foreigners dominate Iran's oil industry. The production's actual program, distributed at the end of the play, explains Roosevelt's role in Iran affairs, and the play offers some context, but this now-distant and obscure figure has no potent resonance for the audience as he tries to rewrite the play. But then again, the brief history lesson helps explain Sayrafiezadeh's confused reactions to 9/11 as he remembers the parody song "Bomb Iran" set to a Beach Boys melody.

Referencing back to Noises Off, in which scripted chaos must be finely tuned, that is an element not fully conquered here due both to the script and this production of it. Cast members Patricia Austin, Alan Coyne, and Jenna Apollonia handle their roles competently, while Cassidy Brown brings added polish to the role of the director. Damien Seperi makes a solid impression as Sayrafiezadeh, although on opening night several line stumbles pulled us out of the play's reality. The play's quasi-chaotic structure is a director's challenge, and while Evren Odcikin has it up and running with reasonable efficiency, there is still tightening to do in a play that requires both a meandering aura and quick-change preciseness to pull if off.

 

Autobiography of a Terrorist will run at the Potrero Stage through May 7. Tickets are $15-$36, available at goldenthread.org.