Sunday, June 12, 2016

Negotiating With Terrorists

Readers who grew up reading the works of John Steinbeck probably concentrated on his 16 novels and five published collections of short stories. However, Steinbeck also wrote six-nonfiction books, one of which related his experiences during World War II with several U.S. Army Air Forces bomber crews.

Published in 1942, Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team brought a new catchphrase into the American vernacular. Whether it was used in war movies or by adolescents throwing snowballs at their friends or dropping water balloons from a window, "Bombs Away!" was always shouted with the thrill of adventure rather than any reservations about a potential death toll.

In today's world, terrorists have access to much more sophisticated weaponry than Steinbeck's bomber crews could have imagined. Whether one thinks of gun nuts, suicide bombers, or those who prefer to wreak havoc old style (with a Molotov cocktail),  their goal is to disrupt life, destroy property, and catch their victims by surprise.

It doesn't matter if shootings occur in a middle school or at an Army base, the element of surprise is a terrorist's most valuable asset (box cutters were the weapon of choice on September 11, 2001). If hostages are taken captive, they may find themselves at the mercy of a completely irrational person. From Dog Day Afternoon, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and Stephen King's Misery to Speed, Argo, and Captain Phillips, audiences have become accustomed to hostage dramas as a form of entertainment.

But what happens when the person holding all the cards is a religious fanatic? Or your mother?

* * * * * * * * *
Tenderly directed by Giovanna Sardelli on Andrew Boyce's handsome unit set, The Velocity of Autumn recently received its regional premiere from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Set in 2006, the action takes place in the second floor living room of an old brownstone in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The protagonist is a feisty 79-year-old woman named Alexandra (Susan Greenhill), who is determined to retain control over the final phase of her life -- even if her concept of death with dignity includes the possibility of self-immolation.

Susan Greenhill as Alexandra in The Velocity of Autumn
 (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

It's easy to see why Alexandra has turned her cozy home into something resembling a war bunker filled with Mason jars, wine bottles, and plenty of other containers transformed into home-made Molotov cocktails that have been strategically placed all around her living room. Instead of filling them with kerosene, she has used the more potent photographic developer fluid left over from her late husband's darkroom. Her trusty Zippo lighter is always within reach in case someone enters the apartment.

Despite their nagging efforts, Alexandra has no intention of yielding control over her life to Michael and Jennifer (her eldest, heterosexual children whom she refers to as "the Mongol hordes") without blowing up her brownstone and, at least in her tortured imagination, reducing an entire city block to rubble.

Playwright Eric Coble fashioned his 90-minute play to be the final installment in his triptych entitled The Alexandra Plays (three works written about one woman to be performed as if she lived three lives simultaneously in 2013).
  • In A Girl's Guide to Coffee, Coble paints the young and feisty Alex as an aspiring artist in her twenties who is stuck in a dead-end job. Working as a barista is crushing her dreams.
  • In Stranded on Earth, he portrays Alexa as a middle-aged woman saddled with the adult responsibilities of caring for a husband and three children while holding down a day job. Still dreaming about being an artist, the clusterfuck of emotional burdens she must juggle have left her wondering what might have happened if she had not gotten married.
  • The Velocity of Autumn finds the 79-year-old Alexandra in war mode, fiercely determined to do battle with Michael, Jennifer, and if necessary, the police. Having outlived her husband (who didn't take to retirement very well), Alexandra has reached the blessed stage of life when she can live alone, in peace and quiet. However, her hopes for a blissful geriatric existence have been betrayed by her decaying body. Keenly aware of her growing isolation, physical deterioration, potential helplessness, and increasing memory problems (which could be precursors of senile dementia or Alzheimer's), Alexandra understands that she is engaged in a losing battle against time. As much as she would like to see her grandchildren again, she realizes that would mean having to deal with their obnoxious parents.
Mark Anderson Phillips as Chris in The Velocity of Autumn
 (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

One afternoon, as she is resting in her recliner, her estranged gay son climbs the tree closest to her living room, manages to pry open a window, and climbs into his mother's apartment. Convinced that, after a 22-year absence from her life, Chris (Mark Anderson Phillips) must have been manipulated by his older siblings in a last ditch attempt to get his mother out of her home, Alexandra insists that he leave by the same route he entered her apartment. There's just one problem. A restless soul, Chris has spent much of his life as a nonconformist and is the rebellious child who turned out to be the most like his mother. In many ways, the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.

Susan Greenhill and Mark Anderson Phillips in a scene
from The Velocity of Autumn (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

After spending time in Oregon, Chris has spent the past few years in living Farmington, New Mexico. Because Alexandra often dragged him to art museums when he was a child, they share a common language and appreciation of art that she never had with Michael and Jennifer. If there is one person who can get through to Alexandra, it is the child who always regarded himself as a failure, but who can still remember in exquisite detail what was in his mother's paintings.

Susan Greenhill and Mark Anderson Phillips in a scene
from The Velocity of Autumn (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Coble describes his third play as focusing on the idea of "how your identity, your relationship to the world, and your commitment to art change as you age." It also gives a rare and poignant demonstration of the intellectual intimacy that can often develop between a mother and her gay son. As Robert Kelley (the artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) elaborates:
"The Velocity of Autumn captures a time of life, later life, with humor, anger, dignity, and resolution. Most of us have lived (or will live) some part of the journey. I'm sure playwright Eric Coble has been there, for he offers a strikingly personal insight into the progress of life. He understands how the bewildering spring of youth and lingering summer of adulthood can give way in a moment to the surprising velocity of autumn. Coble metaphorically recounts a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in which an ascending spiral ramp continuously invites you to anticipate the next exhibit of paintings or sculptures as you climb to the top. But there's an even greater invitation on the descent: a chance to see everything you've just experienced from a new, now informed, perspective. And there's even more to be appreciated and embraced in the everyday world around us, from the explosion of autumn color on an aging tree outside Alexandra's window to the flash of new hope in a son long lost but still able to learn from the mother he's never ceased to love."
Mark Anderson Phillips and Susan Greenhill in a scene
from The Velocity of Autumn (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When Chris finally gets his mother to explain why she has taken her two favorite paintings down from the living room walls, Alexandra explains him that she no longer knew they were hers, that she no longer understood them, and that she was terrified of losing her sense of self. Susan Greenhill and Mark Anderson Phillips spar with each other like nervous cats before Chris can finally wear down his mother's defenses.

In the wrong hands, The Velocity of Autumn could have become a pilot episode for a television series called My Mother, The Urban Terrorist. Thankfully, Coble does an exquisite job of framing Alexandra's fears with tenderness. I still remember how my own mother, as she slowly drifted into the fog of Alzheimer's, asked "When did I become stupid?"

Performances of The Velocity of Autumn continue through June 26 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
The captive in Ayad Akhtar's powerful new drama, The Invisible Hand, is at the mercy of more formidable opponents than a cantankerous grandmother. Having been kidnapped by a group of militant Islamists in Pakistan, former Citibank employee Nick Bright (Craig Marker) finds himself in a primitive jail cell facing a bizarre challenge. Since the United States will not negotiate with the terrorists for his release, Nick's only way out of captivity is to raise the funds to pay for his $10 million ransom.

Nick Bright (Craig Marker) explains how to play the stock market
to Bashir (Pomme Koch) in a scene from The Invisible Hand
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

If he can get a laptop with a solid Internet connection, he's pretty sure he can pull it off. But dealing with the manipulative Imam Saleem (Barzan Akhavan), the easily angered Bashir (Pomme Koch), and their guard, Dar (Jason Kapoor), presents Nick with a cross-cultural minefield. Even though he has worked in Pakistan for a while, trying to explain the intricacies of making a killing in the stock market (by manipulating wheat prices) to a short-tempered zealot who has been assigned to type all of his commands into a computer tends to slow down the process.

Pomme Koch and Craig Marker in a scene from
The Invisible Hand (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The Invisible Hand takes place against a background of frequent bombings in a war zone where the streets sometimes actually do run red with blood. As someone who has led a rather privileged life, Nick is forced to wrestle with such questions as:
  • Is it better to attempt this kind of electronic heist while handcuffed? 
  • Is it worth chiseling a hole in the wall of your prison cell only to be attacked by dogs when you try to escape in the middle of the night? 
  • Are the beatings, the intimidation, and the leg shackles really worth trying to buy your freedom and save your life?
Imam Saleem (Barzan Akhavan) intimidates his captive, banker
Nick Bright (Craig Marker) in a scene from The Invisible Hand
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Following the success of Disgraced, Akhtar's new play leaves no doubt about his talent to weave complicated financial and cultural issues into a tapestry of terrorist activities in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death. As the playwright explains:
“I think that the language of finance and the dilemmas of faith are the two central narrative axes of the collective psyche of the fading, late, capitalist empire that we are. For me, it is not a matter of a conscious choice to write about that; it’s the emanation of a natural interest on my part. I read The Wall Street Journal every day. I have been preoccupied with issues of faith most of my life. I think that, actually, writing about the financial world is writing about religious ideology. I think that free-market capitalism has all of the hallmarks of religious ideology assumptions about reality, enacted ritual, the expectation that certain rituals will lead to certain outcomes when it’s patently the case that it never does, vociferous belief, and the marshaling of national and personal resources to justify unproven and unprovable assumptions about reality.  Eight hundred years ago, we could have talked about the reigning ideological order guiding individuals and nations, and we would have called it the church. Today we call it the economy.”
Craig Marker, Jason Kapoor, and Pomme Koch in a scene
from The Invisible Hand (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although the Marin Theatre Company had been eagerly anticipating presenting the Bay area premiere of The Invisible Hand, just as the company was about to begin rehearsals, they got hit with a major surprise. Following several productions of his play, Akhtar had made substantial revisions in the script. On May 19, the company's artistic director, Jasson Minadakis, received a new draft of the play containing new pages, new dialogue, and several new scenes that the playwright written only three days prior. As he told his four-actor ensemble:
“As a group we are going to jump into another of the most exciting and terrifying things that occasionally happen in rehearsals for a new play. Everything Ayad learned from audiences in the first few productions has been brought into this new script. It’s going to require some incredible flexibility on the part of all of our artists, but this is the great joy of new plays. We have been given the opportunity to do the first production of his new script."
While I can't make any judgment on what the first version of The Invisible Hand might have been like, it's fair to say that Akhtar's new version keeps audiences on the edge of their seats while transmitting a great deal of strategic information about how to game the market. When the fabled invisible hand of the market asserts itself with a stunning correction, it leaves Nick gobsmacked and confronts the audience with a rude shock to the mindset of the status quo.

Dar (Jason Kapoor) points a gun at Nick (Craig Marker) in
a scene from The Invisible Hand (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The production is a triumph for Craig Marker (who was learning Akhtar's new script while still appearing as both King Henry VIII and King James I in Howard Brenton's play, Anne Boleyn). He receives sturdy support from Jason Kapoor (as a guard who has learned enough from Nick to start trafficking in potatoes), Barzan Akhavan as a greedy Imam who is in too much of a rush to follow Nick's step-by-step instructions, and Pomme Koch as the quick-learning Bashir who absorbs Nick's knowledge and turns the tables on both the financial market and Pakistan's political establishment.

For a fascinating TED talk by the playwright on the value of theatrical storytelling, I heartily recommend the following video clip.

Performances of The Invisible Hand continue through July 3 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here to order tickets).

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