Thursday, June 29, 2006
Four paramilitaries in fatigues aim AK-47s with laser-scopes over the heads of the audience as a child screams.
The opening image of PacRep’s powerful new piece of documentary theater, Talking To Terrorists, is just the first bullet in a nearly relentless barrage of brutal, illuminating, sickening, and oddly inspiring words and visuals.
Culled from verbatim interviews with terrorists, their victims, politicians and psychologists, Talking To Terrorists personalizes atrocity in sharp bursts of monologue without condemning or overly sympathizing with the men, women and children whose lives have been touched and ruined by terrorism.
As a genial Chicago psychologist named Edward, Jim Webber provides the play’s commentary while managing to infuse some much-needed humor to the proceedings. Edward’s thoughts on the social origins, development and psychology of the terrorists tie the numerous, intertwined monologues together.
“Terrorists aren’t psychopaths, they are mostly bright, intelligent, inquisitive, visionary, but they are blocked,” the psychologist tells us.
And then Robin Soans, the playwright, sets out to prove this to us with compelling testimony taken from the mouths of terrorists such as ex-members of the Irish Republican Army, ex-child soldiers of the National Resistance Army of Uganda, and the ex-head of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade.
Woven in with the psychologist’s commentary, these stories begin with the circumstances of the terrorists’ origins. Hearing these tales of horror from the sources, through a strong ensemble of actors, it’s hard to feel that their actions are, if not justified, at least understandable.
And that, of course, is Soans’ primary aim. The psychologist repeatedly tells us that we, the audience, are not really all that different from the terrorists. It’s only a matter of circumstance that allows us to be the judges and not the judged.
“I realized that if I had been born in Crossmaglen or South Armagh, I would have been a terrorist,” a British colonel in Ireland tells us—and we realize that the same goes for us. If we had seen our homes destroyed, our families brutalized, raped or murdered—if we ourselves had been imprisoned, tortured, mutilated—we, too, might have become terrorists. Listening to the remarkable tales of suffering we realize that all that’s required to become a terrorist is to be born in a climate of terror.
It’s a sobering thought and one that every American should discuss. In this age of War on Terror, where our leaders grossly oversimplify the conflict and build support by de-humanizing our enemy, a play like Talking to Terrorists should be mandatory.
Again, Soans’ script does not try to justify violence. It paints the horrors of these people’s actions in powerfully vivid and, at times, difficult-to-stomach colors. When a former child soldier recounts asking men and women, “Short sleeves or long?” before hacking off one of their arms at the elbow or wrist, we are overcome by an uncomfortable mix of sympathy and loathing for her.
To further guard against romanticizing these terrorists, Soans wisely intersperses testimony from victims of terrorism, such as Terry Waite, an envoy for the Church of England who was taken hostage by the Islamic Jihad in Lebanon in 1987 while trying to secure the freedom of four hostages.
Thankfully, the cast portraying these real people is superb. Led by Equity actor Kevin Black, who plays multiple roles ranging from a Luton Muslim to an ex-Ulster Volunteer Force member, the ensemble conveys the emotion and pathos of these people with sharp realism. Equity actor Travis Poelle (of Buddy Holly fame) is also impressive with mesmerizing turns as a Luton Muslim, an IRA soldier, and a British army colonel. But each of the actors completely inhabits their roles. Suzanne Stern is joyous and wise as British politician Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam. John Sousa nearly steals the show as a sad, exiled, but quietly fierce Palestinian. Avondina Willis is moving as a big but strangely gentle Kurd. Shawna Cormier and Malinda DeRouen are creepy and heartbreaking as the two child soldiers of the Ugandan Resistance Army.
Stephen Moorer’s direction is excellent. He lets the stories tell themselves with little interference. Spoken by actors haloed in spotlights, the words become hauntingly personal. The transitions between monologues are seamless. The production takes on the feel of a confessional or an AA meeting. And slowly, the word “terrorist” is deconstructed and replaced with a human being.
Like anyone, terrorists just want to be understood. And that, Mo Mowlam, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Labor MP, tells us, is “the only way to beat them.”
TALKING TO TERRORISTS shows Thursday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 2pm and Wednesday at 7:30pm through July 13 at the Circle Theatre, Casanova between Eighth and Ninth, Carmel. $26-$36/adults; $12-$25/seniors and students. For more info call 622-0100 or visit pacrep.org.