by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
To give or provide the meaning of; explain; explicate; elucidate
To translate what is said in a foreign language
To represent incorrectly, improperly or falsely
[dropcap]Although[/dropcap] we rarely give it much thought, we are surrounded by interpreters: from the sign language interpreter at an concert, to the United Nations interpreter on our newsfeed, to the teenager interpreting for her foreign-born grandmother at the pharmacy. The situations may vary, but the intent is the same — to allow those who speak different languages the ability to understand each other.
Translation and interpretation are often considered interchangeable, but they are different, if related, skills. Translation is an art practiced using the written word. Translators have time and references, like dictionaries, to support them. Interpreters, on the other hand, work on their feet and in the field with no support. They make snap decisions based on knowledge and experience. In professional situations, we expect that the interpreter is fluent in both languages, is able to accurately express the meaning of the speaker, and can offer a hint of the speaker’s tone and feeling.
But what if an interpreter — one working in a volatile political situation — decided to go rogue? To deliberately misrepresent and distort her client’s words to further her own agenda? This is the premise for Jason Wells’ smart and scathing political satire, The Engine of our Ruin.
Professional interpreters generally follow a code of ethics and pride themselves on keeping their own personalities and points of view out of the proceedings. But The Engine of Our Ruin capitalizes on the flaw in this assumption; the very fact that an interpreter is required in any given situation indicates that neither side of the conversation understands enough of the other language to gauge the veracity of the interpreter’s words. They must blindly — or in this case, aurally — trust in the integrity of the interpreter. And trust is such a fragile thing.
Wells’ premise begins simply enough. In an unnamed Middle Eastern country, several mid-level American diplomats are meeting with two similarly placed representatives of the local government for a delicate negotiation. Razi is the neutral interpreter, approved by both sides. What should be a fairly standard afternoon of political maneuvering is derailed when Razi chooses to misinterpret the conversation by raising women’s rights and education for women in the unnamed country. These are issues neither side is prepared to discuss. The resulting confusion and clash of egos quickly escalates from peevishness and posturing into far more dangerous territory.
Stated so baldly, this sounds like the inciting incident for a big-screen political thriller. But Wells has laced his script with a feisty, acerbic wit which gleefully skewers situational absurdities as the misunderstandings mount.
“Communication is so difficult, even among people of the same language and culture,” Wells explains. “Yet we seem to have little sense of humility when it comes to dealing with people with whom we have profound cultural differences. That struggle to communicate, when the stakes are so high, seemed like a good premise for comedy. Or drama, for that matter, but I chose — mostly — comedy.”
That darkly comic take on a provocative political situation attracted longtime Los Angeles intimate theatre veterans Tom Ormeny and Maria Gobetti to option The Engine of our Ruin for its world premiere at the Victory Theatre. After 36 years of producing, this team knows what they like in a play and what their audience wants to see.
Producer Ormeny is proud of the company’s record of delivering provocative plays which are unafraid to explore current political, social, and moral issues. He believes that Engine’s ability to both challenge and entertain the audience makes it a natural for the Victory. Gobetti, who is directing the production, has a similar belief in the play and its message.
“First, I think the writing is really extraordinary,” she says. “I started laughing early… The whole idea of miscommunication is vital and important both personally and — in this play — politically. The escalation of misunderstandings is funny, yet truly frightening.”
Wells acknowledges avoiding formal research in constructing the world of the play. From the start, he knew the story he wanted to tell, and understood that getting lost in a morass of realistic details could distract him from that goal. His instincts appear to have been sound, as several working diplomats have assured him that the situation seems highly plausible. An assertion which leaves the playwright, he says, with decidedly mixed feelings.
The setting for The Engine of our Ruin is far from the continental United States, but the shrill blare of partisan politics can’t help but intrude on the production at some level. And, when the daily news routinely features stories that vie with the play’s situations as topics of satire, it feels like Engine has become prescient beyond anyone’s expectations.
Ormeny was brought up in Eastern Europe, an experience which instilled in him an understanding that politics is an inherent part of daily life. It also means that he has given thought to how this play, and theatre in general, might influence the world outside the rehearsal room.
“I believe we are living in dangerous times. Theatre needs to mirror the current realities and try to present the dangers in a way that make them less toxic, more human and understandable. If we can laugh at the idiocy of our disagreements, the frailty of our egos, the blindness of our biases, the pettiness of our foibles, we can generate hope for our future and empathy for the past.”
Interestingly, Wells finds an unexpected optimism in his play when compared with current examples of democracy at work. “As acerbic as the play sometimes is, it seems almost quaintly idealistic compared to the current malignancy in our politics. There are no villains in the play; everyone is actually trying to do the right thing… So, the unexpected thing for me is how tonally light the piece suddenly appears compared to the dark reality we find ourselves in now.”
Zehra Fazal, who plays the interpreter Razi, is quick to praise the cleverness of Wells’ concept, as well as the easy rhythm of the lines and clarity of the acting beats. (A boon she attributes to the fact that Wells is also an actor.) And, as for the role of Razi, “She’s fearless, wickedly sharp, and a bit naughty,” she says. “When working on Razi, I can’t help but think of the old Italian proverb ‘Traduttore, traditore’—translator, traitor.”
Fazal — who was born and raised in the Midwest, the daughter of Pakistani Muslim immigrants — is careful to explain that Islam is practiced differently in different countries and Pakistan is not the Middle East, but the cultural and faith-based similarities certainly offered a partial entrée to the character.
Even more important in finding the character is the affinity she feels with the gamble Razi takes. That gamble, and the dream that inspired it, speak directly to Fazal.
“I love that Razi stands for education. Education is the way forward. I am fortunate to have come from a family that instilled a love of education and learning in me, because my parents and their families, for generations back in Pakistan and India, valued the minds of women and prioritized their education. I feel insanely lucky, because for so many girls and women in that part of the world, that still isn’t the case. It’s absolutely insane to me that in many parts of the world, 50% of the workforce is not utilized. Imagine what a world it would be if we had 100% of human talent working on our problems, not just 50%.”
NOW PLAYING: THE ENGINE OF OUR RUIN at the Victory Theatre, through June 26.
An idealistic interpreter with secret agenda turns mission into international incident.