The World Premiere of We declare you a terrorist… Raises Relevant Questions on War

Tim J. Lord’s play at Round House Theatre depicts a fictionalized account of the 2002 Moscow hostage crisis, but echoes the current crisis in Ukraine.

Tim J. Lord

Tim J. Lord, the playwright behind We declare you a terrorist …, now playing at Round House Theatre, could not have anticipated the political context and baggage around the show’s world premiere. It’s a fictionalized account of the 2002 Moscow hostage crisis, during which Chechen terrorists took control of a theater until Russian authorities pumped the space full of gas. The play’s protagonist is from Ukraine, and characters debate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence on the country, halfway through his first official term. The current war in Ukraine adds some sting to the dialogue, but even without the war, this would be a tough political drama that raises important questions about how different people find purpose in violent struggle.

Co-directors Ryan Rilette and Jared Mezzocchi, along with scenic designer Lawrence Moten, start with a deceptively simple space. It is an anonymous room with beaten up furniture—one character describes it as a kind of purgatory. It’s a year after the hostage crisis and the action begins with an interrogation. An FSB officer (Elliott Bales) pulls a black hood off another man (Cody Nickell) with bound wrists, and starts asking questions. Before anyone can speak, sounds of someone being tortured happen offstage.

The FSB officer uses the frightening sounds and disorientation to his advantage: He is off-putting, almost jovial (none of the actors speak in Russian accents, which is the right choice). You may know that the FSB is modern Russia’s successor to the KGB, so this officer is familiar with interrogation tactics. It turns out his prisoner wrote the play that was being performed when hostages were taken, and after surviving, the playwright was caught trying to enter Chechnya. We eventually learn why, but not just through the officer’s questions. In flashbacks to the hostage crisis, the playwright converses with a Russian teenager, Masha (Bekah Zornosa), and Kayira (Ava Eisenson), a Chechen terrorist. Both admonish the playwright and serve as his conscience.

Ava Eisenson (Kayira), Cody Nickell (The Writer), and Bekah Zornosa (Masha) in “We declare you a terrorist...” at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.
Ava Eisenson (Kayira), Cody Nickell (The Writer), and Bekah Zornosa (Masha) in “We declare you a terrorist…” at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

The major flourish in We declare you a terrorist involves the nature of the flashbacks. Zornosa and Eisenson do not physically appear on stage. Instead, we see video projections of them on the walls, while Nickell reacts to them in real time. It is an eerie effect, and has a purpose beyond delineating flashbacks from the present. The images of Zornosa and Eisenson are literally larger than life, projected to roughly the size of a movie screen, so their expressive faces only need small changes in order to communicate a great deal. Russian brutality shapes how their characters think, albeit in opposite ways, and the tensest scenes are an extended argument over Kayira’s tactics. She may have a gun and a bomb strapped to her, but the hostage crisis has plenty of downtime, which gives them ample time to pore over the efficacy of terrorism.

If the flashbacks are about the Russian state’s influence over its people, the interrogation scenes are an extension of the government’s will. The dynamics between the playwright and FSB officer are similar to Taking Sides, a 1995 play set in World War II’s aftermath where an American soldier tries to decide whether a German conductor has Nazi sympathies. Both plays conclude that the answers are nowhere near as simple as the interrogator wishes, and the mere act of detaining an artist curdles any possibility that someone such as a conductor or a playwright might remain a friend of the homeland. Bales’ physically commanding performance is all about needling Nickell’s character, and they are effective sparring partners. (Bales flubbed some lines at the production City Paper attended, but he effectively improvised his way through them.) Their dialogue turns into an intellectual battle of wills, another smart choice since onstage depiction of violence and torture would get in the way of Lord’s deeper themes. The officer has his reasons for joining the FSB, just like Masha and Kayira, to the point that every character, including the playwright, become an avatar for one possible path toward unhappiness and despair under the Putin regime.

Lord declines to name Nickell’s playwright character, although a simple Wikipedia search reveals him to be Georgi Vasilyev. By keeping his name semi-anonymous, Lord can take more liberties with the character’s choices and conduct. Absent any strong connection to Vasilyev, Nickell has the freedom to tackle a tricky role, one where the playwright empathizes with three people who hate him for wildly different reasons. His use of understatement is consistently effective, conveying subtle shifts between terror and curiosity, and more importantly, it is dramatically plausible that the other three characters feel comfortable confiding in him. The playwright’s tools are modest: he knows how to ask questions, and has a sense of humor. He may be lucky insofar that Masha and Kayira have opinions about art, although the play also suggests these shared interests, not politics, are where common ground can exist.

Because of its setting and the play is a world premiere, I was curious how We declare you a terrorist… would involve the audience. In an earlier draft, perhaps Lord imagined some kind of interactive theater, with a terrorist character shouting directly at the audience. That tactic would be immediately shocking, then lose its power. Ultimately, Lord does make use of a theater full of attentive listeners. At a crucial moment, the lights turn up and Nickell addresses the audience, his voice full of solemnity and regret. The implication is that we are the dead from the 2002 crisis, a powerful gambit that breaks down several barriers. If the original intent was to disabuse us from thinking about terrorism and totalitarianism in abstract terms, then a secondary, more immediate effect is how this play changes the way we think about the war in Ukraine—and why both sides fight.

We declare you a terrorist…, by Tim J. Lord and co-directed by Ryan Rilette and Jared Mezzocchi, runs at Round House Theatre until May 8. 

Article by Alan Zilberman for the Washington City Paper here.

‘Settlements’ by Seth Rozin, play at InterAct: Smart intellectual debate and economical storytelling

Under David Winitsky’s direction, a stellar five-person cast radiates political and artistic passion and mostly transcends stereotypes.

SETTLEMENTS at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left) Steven Rishard, and Becca Khalil.
SETTLEMENTS at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left) Steven Rishard, and Becca Khalil.Seth Rozin

Seth Rozin’s Settlements deliberately offers what the controversial play powering its plot does not: the balanced expression of multiple viewpoints.

Inspired by real-life events, Rozin’s world-premiere drama at his InterAct Theatre Company fuses smart intellectual debate with economical storytelling. Its weaknesses are its dearth of action and an occasionally distracting detour through the thickets of gender identification. Under David Winitsky’s direction, a stellar five-person cast radiates political and artistic passion and mostly transcends stereotypes.

Rozin, InterAct’s cofounder and producing artistic director, favors punning titles. His 2018 play, Human Rites, which drew on anthropological research into the practice of female circumcision, explored cultural differences and human rights. Settlements references the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank by Israel. But its larger subject is the desirability of overcoming polarization and forging compromise.

The characters in Settlements, especially a half-Jordanian, half-Jewish playwright and a wealthy donor with strong ties to Israel, aren’t exactly at home in that territory.

SETTLEMENTS at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left) Becca Khalil, Steven Rishard, and Mitch Greenberg.
SETTLEMENTS at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left) Becca Khalil, Steven Rishard, and Mitch Greenberg.Seth Rozin

Rozin’s play owes its premise to a 2013 imbroglio involving the D.C. Jewish Community Center and its well-regarded Theater J. The center fired Ari Roth, the theater’s longtime artistic director, after years of contention over programming sympathetic to Palestinians and critical of Israel.

The center has commissioned a work by a young playwright, Yasmine (Becca Khalil), betting that the writer’s mixed heritage will produce a balanced examination of Middle Eastern issues. It turns out to be a bad bet.

Yasmine identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronoun “they,” which Noah readily adopts and other characters reject or stumble over. The stumbles take up too much stage time. But Yasmine’s identity also bears thematic weight, symbolizing the need to reject binary ideologies and find common ground. Yasmine, ironically, won’t be the one to do it. Impelled by a West Bank encounter to chronicle the impact of violence on a Palestinian family, she has lost interest in portraying Israeli characters or perspectives.

Noah tries, gently, to coax Yasmine into more complexity, while fending off interference from the center and its board. In Rishard’s prickly, charismatic portrayal, he is not anyone’s notion of an ideal employee, but his advocacy of artistic independence seems admirable. His most dedicated antagonist is Cesar, a retired ophthalmologist, philanthropist, and son of a Holocaust survivor whose largesse is jeopardized by Yasmine’s intransigence. Mitch Greenberg is excellent in the role, which Rozin renders with unexpected sympathy.

Trying to find the elusive middle ground are Judith and the center’s board president, Marion (Emily Zacharias), elegantly attired by costume designer Natalia de la Torre.

Along with a few pieces of furniture, Marie Laster’s scenic design includes off-white and blue sliding panels, suggesting both boundary walls and Israel’s national colors, and a silhouetted cityscape evoking the West Bank. The set strikes a nice balance — that word again — between realism and the symbolic world of the imagination.

Settlements

Presented by InterAct Theatre Company at the Proscenium Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., through April 24. Vaccination proof and masks required. Tickets: $35. Information: 215-568-8079 or www.interacttheatre.org.Published April 11, 2022

Review by Julia M. Klein for the Philadelphia Inquirer

Review of VIETGONE by Jeffrey Lo at the City Lights Theatre Company

Amanda Le Nguyen and Jomar Tagatac
Photo by Christian Pizzirani

On the surface a story detailing the journey of some Vietnamese immigrants as they escape the fall of Saigon in 1975 and land in a refugee camp in Arkansas, Vietgone is actually an irreverent, topsy-turvy, wild ride of a moving and engaging love story–in this case, a story based on how the playwright’s parents actually met. But as their story is told, Qui Nguyen keeps us guessing if Vietgone, which premiered in 2015, is also a romantic comedy, a sex-and-expletive-packed action adventure, a rap-and-rock-infused musical, a parody about recently arrived immigrants’ views of America, a tale of stark realism, or one closer to fantasy. The answer is yes to all.

City Lights Theater Company has assembled an absolutely sizzling, crackerjack cast of five under the incredibly imaginative and insightful direction of talented and wildly popular director (and playwright) Jeffrey Lo to stage a not-to-be-missed Vietgone. From the opening greetings to the audience of “What’s up, bitches? … Yo, there’s a whole lot of white people up there” to the final moments when holding back tears is almost impossible for cast or audience, Vietgone is a nonstop series of scenes that elicit a lot of laughter, many memories (especially for those of us in the baby boomer generation), and much re-thinking and re-evaluation about a war that most in the audience probably entered the theater with a low regard for and a desire to forget.

The plot of the story, if it were told in a normal timeline sequence, begins with two people who are among the last to escape Vietnam–each leaving behind someone who loves him or her. Quang, an eight-year South Vietnamese veteran of the war, reluctantly leaves a wife and two young kids he barely knows, while Tong escapes both the Viet Cong and a boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her but whom she only mildly likes. Quang and Tong meet in a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and have a hot time in bed together (many times), with seemingly no strings attached. Quang then convinces his best friend and fellow escapee Nhan to make what will be a life-changing trip across America on a motorcycle to head back to a family Quang isn’t sure are still alive in a country he has no clue if he can actually get back into safely.

It is that journey that begins the play, with bits of the story’s Vietnam and Arkansas bookends spliced in along the way in no particular order. Since we are warned before the play begins not to “repeat/retweet anything about my parents” in this “boy-meets-girl love story” by someone who identifies himself as The Playwright, we start to expect the story’s romantic, happy ending early on. However, it cannot be predicted how it will be told through Qui Nguyen’s eclectic, electrically charged script punctuated by the original rap songs of Shane Rettig. Our ride will be as wild as that of Quang and Nhan as they motor across the country and meet hippies, good ol’ boys, and even Ninja Turtles in exotic places like Amarillo, Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque.

Bay Area favorite Jomar Tagatac returns to a play he performed in at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and Sacramento’s Capital Stage Company. As City Lights’ Quang, he is nothing short of stellar. His face is often a map of his own journey: the pain of loss of family, home, and country; the shock and anger of landing in a place where he does not want to be; the constant impatience and sheer determination to return at all costs to his family against the odds of doing so all remaining alive. His Quang longs for a home “where we were heroes, where we count for something” and is disgusted by this new country where “we aren’t worth shit.” His anguish is palpable when he moans, “Here I may be living, but I am not really alive.” When he turns to rap to expose his innermost anguish, repeatedly he defiantly chants, “However impossible this is, I’ll make it home.”

But there is one thing that causes Quang to look longingly over his shoulder back toward Arkansas as he heads west toward the California coast and hopefully on to Vietnam. That persistent tug on his heart is Tong, the thirty-year-old immigrant who was supposed to be only a quick, hot fling, but who became a good friend with benefits. And now, on Quang’s journey, his longing eyes say something more.

Vietgone runs through April 24, 2022, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. 2nd Street, San Jose CA. Patrons must show proof of full vaccination and must wear masks at all times inside the theater. For tickets and information, please visit cltc.org.

Read the full review by Eddie Reynolds for Talkin’ Broadway here.

ANTONIO’S SONG/I WAS DREAMING OF A SON is a Powerful Poetry at the MILWAUKEE REP

BWW Review: ANTONIO'S SONG/I WAS DREAMING OF A SON is Powerful Poetry at the MILWAUKEE REP

The Milwaukee Rep welcomes theater back into the Stiemke Studio with Antonio’s Song/I Was Dreaming of a Son by Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez, directed by Mark Clements. The Rep describes the play as a “poetic journey of a dancer/artist/father questioning the balance of his passions — art, culture, family.”

This one-man work of art follows Antonio (played by Suarez) from the streets of Brooklyn to Russian ballet studios to fatherhood as he wrestles with stereotypes of ethnicity and gender, all while aching just to be his singular self. This is a memoir play, meaning it comes from Suarez’s lived experiences. The stories he tells are his own. But together with Orlandersmith, whose work is beloved and renowned for its poetry, these stories weave with music and movement for a truly artful, rhythmic experience.

Alexandra Beller

In fact, the play is so dependent on movement that one almost wonders why it isn’t entitled Antonio’s Dance. Movement Director Alexandra Beller has been collaborating with Orlandersmith and Suarez for years on this project, for they always knew their play was meant to be as much a dance as anything. Per the Rep’s Audience Guide, Beller says: “Antonio did a lot of improvising while speaking the text and I cataloged what naturally came from his body. Then I would hone it and crystallize it and teach it back to him… But it had all been generated from his body through the text, and that seemed really magical to both of us.”

Suarez’s performance is indeed a magical one. His movements speak loudly, softly, and never stutter. He delivers poetry with strength and grace. Through the telling of his crisis of identity, Suarez takes on multiple roles, from his Bushwick bros to his own mother to himself as a child. This is, in the end, an exploration of the multitudes within us, and Suarez captures and beautifully exposes those that reside within him. He’s captivating.

The performance is backed by dynamic projection design by Jared Mezzocchi. The set is simple, with video and music lending the location and mood, with help from Lighting Designer John Ambrosone and Sound Designer Andre J. Pluess. This stripped-back scenery and the projections that support it keep the focus on Suarez and his storytelling.

If you’re wondering if this play is for you, consider this: There’s a moment in Antonio’s Song that speaks in praise of being a “citizen of the world.” That is who this play is for. This work transcends any one descriptor — it’s not just about race, gender, stereotypes, or parenthood. If you are devoted to your fellow humans, to their stories, their struggles, their triumphs, and to exploring just how much we have in common as citizens of the world, then Antonio’s Song is absolutely for you.

Antonio’s Song/I Was Dreaming of a Son is on stage now at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater through March 6, 2022.

Article by Kelsey Lawler for Broadway World.

Tyrone Robinson’s ‘This Bitter Earth:’ A moving tragedy about love and politics

InterAct’s latest production presents an interracial gay relationship through the scrim of memory.

This Bitter Earth at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left to right) David Bazemore, Gabriel Elmore.
This Bitter Earth at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left to right) David Bazemore, Gabriel Elmore.

In This Bitter Earth, a tender tragedy about the intersection of the personal and the political, the playwright Harrison David Rivers takes on two challenges: the depiction of interracial gay love and a restlessly nonlinear narrative.

The play, whose title is taken from a bluesy 1960 love song popularized by Dinah Washington, involves an attraction — really a collision — between two apparent opposites. Jesse (David Bazemore) is an earnest Black playwright, not unaware of race or history, but determined to focus on his art. His white boyfriend Neil (newcomer Gabriel W. Elmore, in an immensely likable performance) is both a child of wealth and privilege and a Black Lives Matter activist. Conflict, as we can imagine, ensues.

This Bitter Earth at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left to right) David Bazemore, Gabriel Elmore.
This Bitter Earth at InterAct Theatre Company, with (from left to right) David Bazemore, Gabriel Elmore.

InterAct Theatre Company’s satisfying production — its second live staging under pandemic protocols — is directed with care and precision by Tyrone L. Robinson, with an emphasis on the easy, often scintillating chemistry between the two politically mismatched men.

In about 85 intermission-less minutes, the action hopscotches around the period between March 2012 and December 2015, and between St. Paul, Minn., (where Rivers himself lives) and various New York City locations.Advertisement

Both the burgeoning protest movement sparked by police (and other) killings of Black men and women — years before George Floyd’s murder made the world take note — and the growing mainstream acceptance of gay relationships provide the play’s charged backdrop. References to gay Black poet Essex Hemphill, a favorite of both characters, tie the two themes together.

InterAct producing artistic director Seth Rozin has described This Bitter Earth as unspooling “through the jumbled lens of memory.” That idea helps. So, too, do the projections of dates and locations, which orient (and occasionally disorient) us. Still, the play’s complex structure, with its repeated evocations of a single cataclysmic event, seems at least as much a demonstration of Rivers’ virtuosity as a narrative necessity.

On Colin McIlvaine’s set, an apartment bisected by a sidewalk and bathed in Shannon Zura’s purple lighting, Jesse frames the action with a monologue about his problems with balance. The language is poetic, and the malady, though real, is also symbolically suggestive — of the relationship and perhaps the society that complicates it.

The pairing between the lovers, who meet at a New York City rally in which Neil has taken a leading role, is a canvas on which Rivers dissects the pressures on high-achieving Black men. Bazemore’s emotionally reserved, slyly witty Jesse prefers to devote his talents and energy to the theater. But his chosen life with Neil connects him, however reluctantly, to the politics of the day, even if he leaves the marching to his boyfriend.

At times, the two traffic in the expected: Jesse derides Neil for his “white guilt,” and Neil criticizes Jesse for his apathy. When Neil points out that they’re living in a world that still can’t entirely accept that “Black Lives Matter,” it is Jesse who retorts: “All lives matter.”

But Jesse can’t remain permanently on the sidelines (or can he?). And surely mutual desire can’t forever fend off the varied forces threatening to tear the couple apart. This Bitter Earth is an elegy — a deeply moving one — to the relationship, and a dirge about what happens next.

“This Bitter Earth,” presented by InterAct Theatre Company at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St., through Feb. 20. Masks and vaccine proof required. Seating is distanced. Tickets: $35 Information: www.interacttheatre.org or 215-568-8079.

Article by Julia M. Klein for the Philadelphia Inquirer.