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Theatre in Review: Noura (Playwrights Horizons)/The Prisoner (Theatre for a New Audience)

Top: Heather Raffo. Bottom: Hayley Carmichael and Hiran Abeysekera. Photos: Joan Marcus.

Two new productions illustrate the value of simplicity and the trouble that can come from overcomplication. Noura has a timely and fascinating subject in the psychological and spiritual challenges of Iraqi refugees making new lives in America, but playwright Heather Raffo overeggs the Christmas pudding, as they say, larding her plot with so many revelations that her drama teeters on the edge of collapse.

Raffo assembles an intriguing cast of characters for Christmas dinner. They include the title character, an architect; her husband, Tareq, a surgeon back home in Iraq, now working in an ER; and their teenaged son, Yazen. In the US for nearly twenty years, they have achieved citizenship, and Tareq and Yazen now go by the names Tim and Alex. Indeed, the man and his son are eager to keep assimilating, while Noura cannot escape the pull of the past. Joining them are Rafa'a, also a doctor, who grew up with Noura, and Maryam, a young woman who spent her childhood in an orphanage run by Noura's aunt, a nun; Maryam's immigration was sponsored by Noura, and she is studying physics in the US. Noura is to meet Maryam face to face for the first time, and is strangely overexcited at the prospect.

The table is set not just for a sumptuous holiday meal but for a poignant, pertinent discussion of exile, memory, culture clash, and ethnic divisions. (All of the characters are Christians, a group of Iraqis who are rarely written about; the one exception is Rafa'a, who is Muslim.) But Raffo, who has modeled her play on Ibsen's A Doll's House, makes awkward use of his trademark clockwork structure, in which one shocker follows another at regular intervals. It's certainly a surprise when Maryam shows up happily pregnant, with not a thought about the father. This is a trial for the straightlaced Noura; Maryam shoo away her sponsor's worries, blithely explaining that she already has a job offer from the Department of Defense, but this goes down as a not-entirely believable twist. When Noura suddenly forces discussion with Rafa'a about the feelings he has long harbored for her, one has to wonder why she has picked this night of all nights to bring it up, especially since she has so much else on her plate. The play begins with Tareq nuzzling Noura, urging her to cooperate in conceiving another child, so how is it that, forty minutes later, he is suddenly laying bare his profound, decades-long reservations about their marriage? And when the big bombshell regarding Maryam is dropped, rather than leaving one emotionally stunned, it causes one to mentally flip back through the action, trying to figure out if it tracks with the rest of the plot. As it happens, it does, but only just: One minute, Raffo has Noura reminiscing about life in an Iraqi village where everyone minded everyone else's business; the next, she is serving up a combination platter of secrets that never could have been kept under such circumstances.

Joanna Settle's production contributes its own set of distractions. Like many architects, Noura surely likes a sparely furnished space, a trait that Raffo uses to underline Noura's inability to fully embrace her new life, but Andrew Lieberman's set is so bereft of detail it looks like the lobby of an apartment building. Also, Marsha Tsimring's lighting -- especially in the early scenes, which take place late at night -- has seemingly been conceived with an unusual disregard for our ability to see the actors' faces; at the exact moment when we should be bonding with the characters, they are often left in the shadows. Other devices, including a set of whispering voices -- well rendered by the sound designer, Obadiah Eaves -- are deployed once or twice, then dropped. (Tilly Grimes' costumes are most suitable to the characters.)

Raffo makes Noura -- a woman who always seems to have her mind's eye fixed on some far-off horizon -- compelling enough, and there are solid contributions from Matthew David as Rafa'a, Nabil Elouahabi as Tareq, and Liam Campora as Yazen. Dahlia Azama struggles to make sense of Maryam, and it doesn't help that her garbled delivery renders several of her speeches incomprehensible. There's a lot going on in Noura, but to muted effect. Too bad -- there's a gripping story here, waiting to be told.

In contrast, The Prisoner whittles its story down to the barest necessities, achieving much more impact. The play, by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, is based on an experience Brook had, many years ago, in Afghanistan. The action begins with a terrible, primal act of murder. Mavuso, a young man, has discovered his sister, Nadia, in bed with their father; in a fury, he has killed the older man.

From the beginning, this situation, the stuff of Greek tragedy, is treated with remarkable understatement; there is no howling or rending of garments. And, interestingly, the act of father-daughter incest, while acknowledged as troubling, is not treated with sensationalism. (For that matter, it isn't probed very deeply, a fact that may upset some in the audience.) What follows is a strange and deeply unsettling sequence in which Ezekiel, uncle to the young people and the brother of the murder victim, pierces Mavuso's legs with a long, pointed stick. That this is staged in stylized fashion distracts not at all from its horrific quality. Don't be surprised if Mavuso's cries of agony, filling the air, leave you feeling thoroughly shaken.

Mavuso survives this torture and is taken to a remote desert location, where he is made to reside in the open air, facing a prison; it's a cunningly original punishment that leaves him to contemplate his actions while being forced to interact with the local villagers and other passersby. Among these is a white female traveler, known only as the Visitor, who becomes fascinated, if not obsessed, with Mavuso's plight.

As the years go by and Mavuso struggles to find some kind of inner peace, his act continues to reverberate. Nadia and Ezekiel debate the justice of his sentence. She also presents Mavuso with a shocking revelation, ultimately departing to study for a career in medicine. Mavuso is tormented by prison guards who assert that his presence outside their institution is undermining the discipline inside; a local man insists that he spreads pollution where he goes. The authors' decision to treat the narrative as a kind of fable prevents one from questioning the narrative or pondering its implausibilities.

The performers are possessed of a gravity, marked by emotions carefully held back, that feels connected to French classical tragedy. But everything is done with such economy of means that the smallest gesture has an enormous effect. In one bit of business, Mavuso, reading from his father's journal, suddenly, furiously snaps the book shut, a moment that caused me to jump out of my seat. Later, in a wordless sequence, Mavuso discovers a rat, at first showering it with affection. When it bites him, his rage boils over and he kills it, roasts it, and eats it.

The entire company, directed by Brook and Estienne, is fine. Hiran Abeysekera finds an abundance of contradictory emotions in Mavuso as he struggles with his innate anger and irrefutable guilt as well as the possibility of moving on. Hayley Carmichael is a powerfully compelling presence as the Visitor, expressing her wonder at Mavuso's story so eloquently that it becomes impossible not to share. David Violi's stripped-down set, a bare space littered with dirt and some branches, could easily accommodate a revival of Waiting for Godot. Philippe Vialatte's lighting achieves a great deal with a few understated effects.

In its contemplation of humanity's unruliest emotions and its Zen-like, profoundly interior account of one man's reparations, The Prisoner has a spiritual quality one doesn't often find in the contemporary theatre; this is especially true in its highly effective use of silence. Strange and terrible things happen in The Prisoner, but each is given ample time and space to sink in; as the authors quietly suggest, this may be the most direct route if not to forgiveness, then to letting go. -- David Barbour

(11 December 2018)

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