by ED RAMPELL
-Theatre” gives form to the truism “truth is stranger than fiction” on the boards. Don. K. Williams, Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company’s Associate Director, defines this “verbatim theatre” as a “word-for-word recreation of an interview or transcript. Everything you see onstage has been said and every event has been lived by the characters being portrayed. So, it’s all true.”
Since the drama of fact is typically topical, it’s often controversial. Indeed, the Clurman’s production of Talking to Terrorists (written by Robin Soans) at Art of Acting Studio boldly takes on what’s arguably two of today’s most explosive issues: terrorism and torture. Politicians like former President Bush have proclaimed that terrorists hate Americans because of their “freedoms,” but Soans’ play is especially audacious because it dares tell other sides of a complex story.
Williams, who is directing the hard-hitting drama’s first full U.S. production, discusses the play’s origins. In 2005, England’s Out of Joint Theatre Company presented Talking to Terrorists, he says “as a response to the issue of terrorism, particularly in Europe, but specifically in England. Four years beforehand, they had the Good Friday Agreement, which brought relative peace to Northern Ireland. Because of that, access to lots of voices became available.”
The two-acter is primarily based on interviews with the combatants who have bombed, shot, etc., unarmed civilians and the survivors of their attacks. According to Williams, characters are not clearly identified “to give a more universal quality to the piece… with a viewpoint shared by a number of people. And it’s a Brechtian concept of the everyman of every situation and a way for the audience to find access because of that.”
Williams says that he was preparing to present a commissioned work about gun control when the November 13, 2015, terror attacks occurred in Paris. “After Paris we needed to answer more immediately. I began searching for a play that would speak to this. [Talking is] my type of theatre. When I read this script, I said, ‘My god, we’ve got to do this.’”
And then, on December 2 — during casting — “San Bernardino happened. We were all outraged by Paris, but there was a response from Tom Oppenheim [Artistic Director of the Stella Adler Acting Studio in New York] that we needed to speak to the rhetoric in this country regarding the wholesale demonization of a people based on the actions of a few, and try to understand, as opposed to saying, like Ted Cruz said, ‘I want to bomb Syria until its sand glows red.’ There are innocent people caught up in what’s happening — and people who aren’t innocent. This was our answer.”
The Art of Acting Studio is the West Coast branch of the bi-coastal Stella Adler Studio, founded in 1949. Storied acting instructor and Stanislavsky Method acolyte Stella Adler and noted American theater director and critic Harold Clurman co-founded the legendary Group Theatre, which presented such socially conscious plays as the 1935 Broadway premiere of Clifford Odets’ proletarian theater classic, Waiting for Lefty—the Clurman Lab’s first production when it opened in 2011 at Art of Acting, located near Hollywood’s Theatre Row.
Decades later, Talking, like Lefty, “has something to say about the world,” asserts Williams. “As performing arts get more commercialized, I find myself being drawn back to the roots of theatre, the Greeks, and how their definition of theatre was a ‘seeing place.’” Euripides’ The Trojan Women, he says, “was a vilification of Greece’s military pillaging others, and they were making a commentary on the horror of that… I’m a really strong believer that you have to entertain first, but there has to be a component of education… about terrorism, and its causes. Hopefully, we enlighten the audience.”
Talking includes dialogue from interviews with practitioners of violent direct action explaining their point of view. James Warfield portrays Provisional Irish Republican Army militant Patrick Magee, who participated in the 1984 Brighton Beach bombing of a hotel where Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was staying at the time. Onstage, Magee explains “the historical logic” that pushed him to execute bloody operations—the aforementioned blast killed five and injured 34—against British occupation and repression in Northern Ireland.
The play skillfully intercuts Magee’s self-justification with the laments of his victims, including Sean Spann as a bewildered Norman Tebbit — a member of Thatcher’s Conservative cabinet — whose wife (Dana Martin) is confined to a wheelchair due to the Brighton explosion. Interestingly, the play explores the costs of this violence, not only on its unarmed targets but on its perpetrators. Both parties are casualties of war. Magee expresses regret for his actions and the harm he has caused, and while imprisoned, befriends his counterpart, a Protestant, pro-British Unionist — whom Dan Evans plays with a beguiling sense of humor. They have much in common and, in a better world, they would have started as friends, not foes.
Talking’s other all-too-human terrorist characters include Nicholas Bonanno as a Palestinian citizen who feels pushed into armed resistance against what he views as Israeli occupation and aggression. Jesse Steccato plays a member of the Kurdish Workers Party—while opposing Turkey, Kurd nationalists are allied with Washington in opposing Isis (a terrorist organization not specifically dramatized in this play, which was written before the Islamic State’s emergence). Jess Nurse depicts a confused Ugandan National Resistance Army child soldier, then steps into another role as the fun-loving Uzbek lover of London’s ambassador to Tashkent (played by Evans, also in a multiple role), whom the Home Office punishes for opposing torture of Uzbekistan’s Islamic prisoners. Andria Kozicka plays Lebanese journalist Rima, English relief worker Phoebe, and housekeeper Marjory. Dana Martin opens Act I as Mo Mowlam, a Labour Party politician who served in Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet and, after leaving government, marched against the Iraq War.
Talking explains the violence, but doesn’t excuse it. This searing piece of Docu-Theatre doesn’t have the simpleminded “either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us” mentality; nothing’s just black and white. Using the actual words of terrorists, survivors, and civilians, Talking illuminates the one option so rarely placed on the table by the powers-that-be: dialogue between “them” and “us” may eradicate our endless cycle of tit-for-tat bloodshed.
NOW PLAYING: TALKING TO TERRORISTS at the Art of Acting Studio, through March 5.
Culled from hundreds of hours of interviews with terrorists, victims, politicians, soldiers and scholars, Talking to Terrorists is a verbatim, word for word journey into the inner workings of the motivations of what makes a terrorist tick and why they do what they do.