Volatile issues in the Middle East

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday November 29, 2017
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It's not Donald Trump, as you might expect, but the persisting shadows of 9/11 that darken many of the landscapes in "ReOrient 2017." The current biennial festival of short plays devoted to Middle Eastern issues produced by Golden Thread Productions takes place mainly in the U.S., where having a name or a look that suggests Muslim and/or Arab connections remains a challenge of assimilation, everyday annoyances, and big-picture harassment. The name of our current president is invoked only a couple of times, and whatever exacerbations he has added to these challenges are seen as no more than manipulations of what's already in place.

That basic theme gets off to a clumsy start in the opening short play, a burlesque of sorts of airport security as a crotchety old woman (Bella Warda) in traditional Arab garb meets a slapstick-zealous TSA agent (Jessica Lea Risco) in "War on Terror." Playwright E.H. Benedict does produce intermittent chuckles with a situation ripe for easy laughs but undermined by characters drawn from wildly differently realities. Directed by Sara Razavi, it sputters to an end with the lack of a satisfying button, which can be a recurring problem among the subsequent plays.

Another of the weaker entries comes next, with Sevan K. Greene's "A Is for Ali," a debate between an American couple of Middle Eastern descent (played by an awkward Mohamed Chakmakchi and a comically astute Atosa Babaoff) arguing what to name their coming child to either honor its heritage or smooth its way in mainstream society. Matters do begin to pick up with the next following entries.

Melis Aker's "Manar" is a purposefully confusing tale of a mother grieving the loss of her son, convinced that she sees him among jihadi terrorists in online postings. Different time frames co-exist in the same space, and we see her son with a young Muslim woman from his school who provides a healing connection as we come to understand the overlapping scenarios. Despite some convoluted entrances and exits on Kate Boyd's set made up of multiple doors, director Erin Gilley draws passionate performances from Lawrence Radecker as the father, Stephen Kanaski the son, Naseem Etemad the school friend, and in a much better turn than her TSA agent, Risco as the mother addicted to searching the Web.

Risco is even more impressive at the start of the second act in Betty Shamieh's "Make No Mistake." In parallel monologues to the audience, a Monica Lewinsky-like mistress to a president and the youngest wife of Osama Bin Laden take turns explaining their devotion to relationships that are ultimately unsustainable. With Risco as the American courtesan and Babaoff as the young Yemini bride, the piece is sharp both in words and in Susannah Martin's direction.

Hannah Khalil's "The Rehearsal" is another trip into confusing realities as a trio of actors secretly works on one play while officially rehearsing another. It's both funny and unsettling as scenes about physical torture of political prisoners give way to an inane sex farce whenever the unseen director shouts out a cue. Director Evren Odcikin craftily mines the playwright's intriguing set-up with Warda, Radecker, and Etemad as actors in the head-spinning scenarios.

After a "soundscape" built around Junichi P. Semitsu's poetry, the most accessible piece in the program brings it to an end. "Thanksgiving at the Khodabakhshian's" has the set-up of a sitcom as a middle-aged Iranian-American woman (Warda) invites her boss and her Trump-supporting wife (Radecker and Risco) to her house for a holiday dinner. In Torange Yeghiazarian's play, the characters are careful to tiptoe around cultural and political divides until the host's feisty daughter (Babaoff) takes things from a simmer to a boil.

Rapprochement is a bit too easily achieved in the otherwise entertaining play directed by Susannah Martin, providing a happy ending to a surprisingly tame evening ostensibly delving into perhaps the most volatile territory in the world today.

"ReOrient 2017" will run through Dec. 10 at Potrero Stage. Tickets are $15-$36, available at goldenthread.org.

Atosa Babaoff and Jessica Lea Risco play a terrorist's wife and a president's mistress in "Make No Mistake," one of the pieces in Golden Theatre Productions' "ReOrient 2017 Festival of Short Plays." Photo: David Allen Studio