Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Palace of the End

[Reviewed for Show Business Weekly]

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Lynndie England: accidental torturer. David Kelley: heartsick weapons inspector. Nehrjas Al Saffarh: trusting member of the Iraqi Communist Party. With the allegory of Alice’s looking glass, Judith Thompson not only connects these desperate and disparate characters, but also turns a sharp mirror on society by revisiting the infamous abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. Built by invisible, arbitrary borders (like Iraq itself), Palace of the End isolates all three of these characters on stage and then, monologue by monologue, uses their fractured realizations of the world to tie them together. Thompson takes liberties with her mix of research and storytelling skills when explaining Lynndie’s infamous “thumbs-up” pictures, Kelley’s suicide, and Saffarh’s struggle to resist Saddam. But these “invented” characters hold fast: Her writing is seamless and every bit as breathtaking for the audience as it is for the actors who labor for breath, fogging up that looking glass.

The monologue “My Pyramids” quickly dispenses with the stereotypes of Lynndie by making her funny: She’s more offended by being called ugly than she is by posts that threaten to kill her. It just as quickly humanizes her: She was out of her depth at Dairy Queen; what did they expect from putting her in charge of “terrorists”? Teri Lamm deserves a Purple Heart for all the emotional blood behind her portrayal of this likeable, delusional martyr. Rocco Sisto deserves one, too: As Kelley lay dying, he struggles to find the strength within his soft-spoken self to call out “the truth” behind the senseless killings his report helped to “justify” in Iraq. As for Heather Raffo — bathed in a golden light, she reflects both happier and darker times. Her account of Saddam’s torturers is almost as heartbreaking as the thought of all that wasted perseverance. These are strong, charismatic performances, layered with the compressed depth and insight of three wholly different plays.

Palace of the End works best, however, as one show, and this is where Daniella Topol shines. The best sort of director, she enhances Thompson’s work not by reinterpreting it, but by focusing on the mournful humanity behind simple actions: rubber stamping a document, shaking dirt off one’s pants, sipping a cup of tea. In this light, the abstractions both of the monologue form and Mimi Lien’s jaggedly pointed mirrors, become inescapably real.

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