Saturday, March 31, 2012

Communicable Complexities

Communicable Complexities
By Tom Wachunas

For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. –Deuteronomy 4:24 –
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” - Woody Allen -

In these troubled times, nothing can bring a civilized discourse among intelligent folk to a grinding halt (if not a violent altercation) quite like the volatile mix of politics and religion. Our moral and intellectual righteousness can be so easily stoked into raging fires of confrontational rage that, in the wake of our most impassioned arguments, we leave each other vexed, perplexed, or worse, literally breathless.

While the narrative scope of “The Near East”, the play by Alex Lewin that had its regional premiere on March 30 at The Players Guild Theatre in Canton, fits squarely within this ideological framework, neither its content nor its intent should be regarded as strident preaching or didactic editorializing. And yet, for all the uncompromisingly explosive questions it so boldly presents (offering little in the way of hard and fast truths or answers), the play is as gently edifying as it is enlightening.

Here’s a synopsis. American Jewish archaeologist and atheist, Ken Schneider, reluctantly agrees to assist on a highly controversial and secretive mission in Saudi Arabia headed by Arab woman scholar, Aisha Ghazali, to uncover the legendary Umm al-Kitab, the “Mother of Books”, believed to be written by the hand of God, and pre-dating the Koran. Aisha’s brother, Umar, is secretly gay, distrusting of Ken, fiercely protective of his sister, and possibly aligned with a radical Islamic group. Amid his dealings with these and other characters in the story, Ken, already struggling with the death of his son and loss of his wife, communes with the ghost of an Egyptian boy who acts as a kind of spiritual guide as he confronts his pain and his beliefs in an unstable landscape of faith and mysticism, love and loss, terror and hope.

The play is a co-production of Northern Michigan University’s (NMU) Forest Roberts Theatre and the New Play Conservatory program of the Canton Players Guild. It is directed by Ansley Valentine, NMU Director of Theatre, who brought his NMU cast to Canton (with the exception of Michael Gatto, who plays Hasan, Aisha’s stern and loyal bodyguard) for this all- too- short run. Valentine has clearly accomplished a masterful feat in sharpening his actors’ capacity for getting inside their characters and delivering electrifying performances, startling in their intimacy and credibility.

As Ken, Ryan Sitzberger is at once cocky and insecure, convincingly authoritative yet uncomfortable in his own skin. When he and Aisha, played by Taylor Kulju, butt heads and souls, the palpable emotional sparks have far-reaching consequences. Kulju’s portrayal of the outlaw scholar is equally dualistic – powerfully self-assured yet painfully vulnerable. Her dialogues are often fast, furious, and fueled by a readiness to be a martyr not for Islamic fundamentalism, but human dignity. Michael Skrobeck, playing Umar, her gentle-hearted timid brother, is similarly riveting and even frightening as he urgently seeks answers and assurances that never seem to come. His situation is made all the more murky and dangerous by his intimate relationship with the duplicitous British diplomat, Michael Kennedy, played with a chilling sort of relish by James Porras II.

In fact all the cast members here have completely immersed themselves in their characters with astonishing intensity. Nowhere is that immersion more convincingly bittersweet and endearing than in the character of Ahmed, the ghost of a 13 year-old boy who was horrifically abused and executed while his father did nothing to save him. In that role, Luke Woolley is nothing short of magical.

Regardless of your religious affiliations or political leanings, you’d have to be hopelessly cold-hearted and/or ruthlessly cynical to be unmoved by the searing pathos of this story and its utterly human characters as they struggle to embrace their cultural and spiritual dilemmas. It’s hardly a simplistic or stereotypical Arab vs. Westerner scenario. Still the play reminds me, as someone with far more than a casual interest in Christian theology, that if our plans can make God laugh, they can just as well make Him cry.

“The Near East” – 2 remaining shows are tonight, March 31 at 8 p.m. and tomorrow (Sunday April 1) at 2:30 p.m. in the Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N., in Canton. Tickets $10
Call the Box Office at (330) 453 – 7617, or

Photo: Luke Woolley as Ahmed

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