Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Betrayed": ☼ ☼ 1/2

The Iraqis who believed the strongest in America's intervention against Saddam Hussein, and who enthusiastically went to work translating for the American army, believing they could help to create the New Iraq, ended up in the worst position possible: distrusted by Americans because they were Iraqis and hated by Iraqis because they were working for Americans. This is the central theme of George Packer's "Betrayed," based upon a series of articles he wrote for The New Yorker. The theme both involves and repels us.

Let us say immediately: "Betrayed" would be a terrific Frontline report or magazine expose, but it is Packer's first play and feels like it. Although the story is never less than fascinating -- we want to jump onto the stage, grab the ignorant American soldier and scream at him: "Don't you see what you're doing?" -- the dialog is not only hard to understand at times but spotty in its focus, and Robin Stanton's direction and staging, with so many changes of scene taking place and black-clad techies running in and out with props, feels awkward.

When the cast is good, they are very good. The two men, the Sunni Adnan (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari) and the Shia Laith (Amir Sharafeh), are at their best both able to show us the inconsistencies of the life-and-death situation in which they are imprisoned. When Intisar (Denmo Ibrahim) arrives, a woman whose dream is to ride her bicycle through Baghdad without being ostracized for doing so, a very interesting dynamic develops between the three.

At one point, the American security chief (James Wagner) is lecturing the three on security issues in the Green Zone, where they all work. He warns them to never trust anyone in the Red Zone. "Excuse me," Ibrahim asks, "but where is this Red Zone?"

"The Red Zone is everywhere outside the Green Zone," says Wagner. In other words, where Iraquis, including the translators, all live.

But their boss Bill Prescott (Alex Moggridge) doesn't get it, the head of security (James Wagner) doesn't want to know about it, and the Ambassador (Keith Burkland) doesn't even want to hear about it. As Adnan, Bakhtiari gives us the most reason to care about what happens to him, but there are no arias here -- no stunning pieces of dialog to capture our attention.

Of course, as we write this, and on into the near future at least, America is still fighting in Iraq. Nothing has changed. Perhaps this is the play's biggest difficulty -- the issues are still charged. The audience walks from the theater in silence.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ 1/2
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Betrayed" two and a half stars. It could be three stars, but three stars implies you should consider seeing this show - definitely. We feel that way -- almost. Perhaps the show will gain some electricity as the cast becomes more familiar with each other during this run. That would put it over the top for sure.

Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Wed.-Sun. through March 1

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