December 15, 2010

"The Great Game" Isn't Winning Enough

What would I do without my theatergoing buddy Bill?  My husband K is a news junkie and my niece Jennifer is a history nut but both looked at me as though I were crazy when I brought up seeing The Great Game: Afghanistan, the 12-play cycle about that country’s troubled relationship with the outside world, from the rivalry between Britain and Russia to control it in the 1840s to the current U.S. war there that is now in its ninth year.

Bill, who is always up for a new theatrical experience, didn’t blink.  Count me in, he said.  Which is how he and I found ourselves sitting in the NYU Skirball Center  last Saturday for the Public Theater’s all-day marathon performance of The Great Game, which is running only through Dec. 19.

The production, which has been imported from London’s Tricycle Theatre, is not for the faint-hearted. Tricycle made its name by presenting works that deal with contemporary issues and its artistic director Nicolas Kent commissioned 12 politically savvy playwrights (the best known being Lee Blessing, who wrote A Walk in the Woods) to dramatize key moments in Afghanistan’s history.

The result is a series of playlets in which 14 actors (including Jemma Redgrave, who is Corin’s daughter and Vanessa and Lynn’s niece) play multiple roles that range from the revered 15th century queen Gohar Shahd to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, from Henry Mortimer Durand, the British minister in charge of the region in the 19th century, to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader who was strategically assassinated two days before Sept. 11.

The plays have been grouped into three sections—the colonial period, Russia’s misadventure in the ‘80s and the current post-9/11 morass—that can be seen on individual evenings (if you can only see one, I’d recommend the Russian section) or, as Bill and I did, in one fell swoop.

The U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan for almost a decade but I confess that most of what I know about that country, I learned from reading Khaled Hosseini's novels “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns." Apparently the Public Theater, which is presenting this New York stop of Tricycle’s U.S. tour, has assumed that most of the audience knows just as little and so it’s put together a crash course in all things Afghani.

The walls outside the Skirball Center have been decorated with imposing images by the veteran photojournalist Bob Nickelsberg, whose wife is an old colleague of mine.  A mini-bazaar has been set up in the lobby. Theatergoers, serenaded by a musician playing the lute-like instrument called the rubab, can shop for Oriental rugs, lapis bowls, embroidered robes, patterned kites and all kinds of books.  “This is how we like to show our country’s culture,” I overhead one vendor telling a customer. 

Inside the theater, ushers hand out an enhanced Playbill that includes a map of the region, an extensive timeline of the country's history and a glossary of unfamiliar names and terms that are used in the show. They also give out separate four-page inserts for each of the three parts that contain even more detailed background information.

Bill and others around us started reading immediately, trying to cram in as much as they could before the lights went down and the show began. But that all struck me as too academic.  And so, alas, did the show itself, which at best seemed to me like a history pageant and, in its more prosaic moments, like a 3-D PowerPoint presentation.

The reviews have been largely positive (click here to read them on StageGrade). But I can’t help feeling that those critics are congratulating the show for what it intends to do rather than what it actually does. As regular readers know, I’m a big support of political theater too.  But I like my theater to be more theatrical.

There are a few minutes of smart stagecraft—the Taliban’s desecration of an art work, the fall of the twin towers on 9/11. But events grind to a halt for interstitial soliloquies that seem to present verbatim speeches by people like Clinton, Massoud, fired General Stanley McChrystal and the Scottish journalist William Dalrymple.   

Each of the playlets presents an interesting situation and idea but the fictional characters come and go so quickly that it’s hard to develop a rooting interest in any of them.  The firm hand of a good dramaturge might have have helped hold the whole thing together

My mind wandered throughout the seven and a half hours (intermissions and meal breaks raised the marathon commitment by another three hours). That’s not the fault of the actors who do a crackerjack job with the material they’ve been given. In fact, they so effectively disappear into the multiple roles they play that I was surprised when I realized there were so relatively few cast members.

I found myself wishing that Kent, who shares directing duties with Indhu Rubasingham,  had adapted the old James Michener approach to history, in which the tale is told through the linked stories of a couple of families with Zelig-like connections to the major events that hook you into the saga in both an intellectual and visceral way. Instead, The Great Game offers a lot of important “tell” but far too little compelling “show.” 

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