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The war games

The Huntington’s The Cry of the Reed ; Travesties by the Publick
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  April 15, 2008

THE CRY OF THE REED: Sinan Ünel’s Middle East–set hostage drama is one play too many.

The Cry of the Reed seems torn from some particularly gruesome headlines: kidnapping, beheading, such stuff as Daniel Pearl’s final dreams were made on. Indeed, Sinan Ünel’s Middle East–set hostage drama, which is getting its world premiere production from the Huntington Theatre Company (at the BCA’s Calderwood Pavilion through May 3), was partly triggered by the 2004 nabbing of journalists Scott Taylor and Zeynep Tugrul by Muslim extremists in Iraq. But the work also enfolds the mystic Islamic philosophy of Sufism, and its main subject is not terror but faith — in Ünel’s rendering a spring of both comfort and cowardice, from which seeps a bogus balm and some of the world’s deadliest poison. At least, that’s one reading of a gripping if overstuffed new play that’s really two plays, one considerably better written than the other.

Erstwhile Huntington Playwriting Fellow Ünel, born in the US but raised in Turkey by a Turkish father and an American mother, has lived his life at a cultural crossroads and grown accustomed to looking in more than one direction. In this case, he had embarked on a play about the 13th-century Sufi poet and philosopher Jalal al-Din Rumi when he became obsessed with the kidnapped journalists (they were later released), one Canadian, the other Turkish. You might say he had one ear tuned to the cry of the reed (in the form of a 5000-year-old Persian wind instrument, the ney), the other glued to the radio, as he set about a work that’s part metaphysical debate, part political potboiler.

Two journalists — a Canadian man and a Turkish-American woman, the latter toting a couple of duffels and a lot of emotional baggage — are kidnapped by Northern Iraqi extremists who don’t discern much difference between reporters and spies, particularly if they’re “infidels.” But the woman, Sevgi, claims to be “a good Muslim girl” and is offered the chance to prove it by calling her estranged mother, a devout and sophisticated Sufi living in Turkey, where she inspires followers of both native and tourist persuasions. Playing Ayla, the mother, is the Turkish actress Çigdem Onat, whose elegance and truthfulness only add to the perception that her part of the play is the long end of the stick. From the character’s initial appearance, where she delivers an impromptu encomium to the keening of a donkey in which she perceives a “wondrous, miraculous grief” similar to her own, Onat’s silken and melodious voice cuts through the speechifying.

An increasingly disheveled yet unfailingly gorgeous Lisa Birnbaum invests Sevgi with intensity as well — but the character is an improbable mix of hothead and naïf. And though Darren Pettie, the rakish Petruchio of the 2006 Taming of the Shrew on Boston Common, makes a defiant Philip, Sevgi’s badly treated fellow hostage, the late-in-the-game introduction of some luridly expressed sexuality into their relationship seems ill advised. Also troublesome is the character of Sevgi’s American boyfriend, Josh, who shows up on Ayla’s doorstep when he discovers that his journalist love has abandoned their Somerville love nest to head back to war-torn Iraq. On the one hand, the character, as portrayed by Sean Dugan, is an insecure wimp; on the other, he’s the only character trying to take action without waiting for divine marching orders. And Ayla’s worshipful factotum, Hakan (Amir Arison), though entertaining, is too comic a figure, given that he’s the link to the ceremony of whirling dervishes that serves as a sort of ecstatic period at the end of the play.

Daniel Goldstein directs the production, which alternately mutes the play’s melodrama and seems to embrace it: there are so many explosions following the penultimate scene of the first act that the audience members think they’ve reached the fireworks climax of Fourth of July on the Esplanade. Half are on their feet and headed up the aisle when the lights go up on one more ominous scene featuring the clichéd militant Muslims and their captives.

The divergent parts of the play are packed onto an ingenious set by Eugene Lee wherein the rudimentary locales co-exist in a bunker-like room made up of battered, peeling doors. There are so many of those that initially you think what’s coming will be a farce — albeit more in the line of Endgame than Feydeau. Eventually the hodge-podge portals seem symbolic of the many directions in which Ünel wants his exploration of the dangers and the solace of faith to go. He needs to pick one.

Travesties has already survived dada and Russian Communism — though it’s unlikely to outlast Ulysses and The Importance of Being Earnest, the other two trains in British playwright Tom Stoppard’s unlikely 1975 collision of parody and ideas. Even by Stoppard standards, the play is a bravura stunt. Just now it’s being nimbly pulled off by the Publick Theatre (at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza through May 3).

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Related: Home fires, Life and death, Spring stages, More more >
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