Saturday, October 23, 2010
"The Great Game: Afghanistan": ☼ ☼ PLUS BANG
We suppose one has to begin a review of "The Great Game: Afghanistan," the trilogy currently at Berkeley Rep on a run that began in London and goes next to New York, like this: "For a project with such historical scope, involving the piecing together of twelve short plays from twelve well-known playwrights, each with a story to tell about different segments of Afghan history, the show is educational and teaches us things we need to know."
There. My review did too.
But if you peruse this tender scene with a little more care, you may see a small child, looking up at his elders with a look of bewilderment on his face, as he pronounces: "But Papa! The Khan isn't wearing any clothes!"
"The Great Game" is a trilogy, but each is made up of four shorter works plus a few historical vignettes. Play One, by far the most interesting, deals with the British mucking up the whole region in the first place, as part of their "great game," which is to say the Nineteenth Century view that Central Asia was simply a playground in the overall power struggle between England and Russia. The very first segment, entitled "Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad," written by Stephen Jeffreys, is alive with action, plots and subplots, color, excitement and even a murder. It is followed by a fascinating view of a negotiation between Sir Henry Mortimer Durand (foreign minister of British India from 1895 to 1894), and his Afghan counterpart Abdur Rahman, the Amir of Afghanistan until 1901. Their give and take, and refusals to compromise until they finally do, are beautifully drawn, and both Michael Cochrane as Mortimer and Raad Rawi as Abdur Rahman are excellent.
After intermission we flash forward to the British Foreign Office present day, and then back to the 1920s. Not much to text home about.
Play Two gives us two theatrically pleasing segments, both following the intermission: David Greig's "Miniskirts of Kabul" and Colin Teevan's "The Lion of Kabul." Each is set in Kabul in the 1990s. In both we are allowed into the heads of our characters instead of feeling like we are trapped in a History of South and Central Asia seminar.
Play Three, well, it drags. And drags. Someone is imprisoned and someone is shot and someone is betrayed and then a soldier comes home to present day England and has to face a wife whose reaction to him being home must make him miss being a target of the Taliban.
Play One has most of the new information. Who knew the British had lost 16,000 men in a fateful retreat? Who ever heard of the Durand Line? This is very important stuff.
But Play Two and Play Three are set roughly in the present. We already know this story. We know the players are flawed. We know they lie. We know it is all about power. We wish to know something of which we are not already too painfully aware. And we also know how this story is going to come out. We've been here before.
RATINGS: ☼ ☼ PLUS BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Great Game: Afghanistan" Two Stars Plus with a BANGLE of PRAISE. This is a convoluted rating. If we could separate the shows for individual ratings we would probably give Play 1 Three Stars Plus, Play 2 Three Stars and Play 3 Two Stars. We cannot recommend seeing the trilogy but we can definitely recommend Play One and, if you like that one, Play Two.
But in the end, "The Great Game" leaves us with unwelcome ambivalence. There are two messages delivered:
1) America should not leave Afghanistan in 2011. Nation building takes time.
2) The Taliban has all the time. We have the expensive watches. We can no more cobble together a nation from this conflicted and tribal country than Tito did in Yugoslavia. We should run for our lives.
Both messages may be true. But ambivalence and lecturing do not a great play make.
"The Great Game"
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theater
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through November 7