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Theatre in Review: Will You Come with Me? (PlayCo/Theatre Mitu)

Layla Khoshnoudi, Maribel Martinez. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Will You Come with Me? has a striking set design that, in retrospect, should raise a red flag for anyone expecting an engaging drama. Afsoon Pajoufar has laid out a spacious, grassy playing area, representing Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park, with seating on two sides. (A series of 2013 protests, which included a significant LGBTQ component, against the park's development is central to the plot.) Overhead, four screens placed on diagonals show close-ups of the cast, outdoor footage, and various bits of imagery, including soldiers' boots, spices, and the Turkish flag, courtesy of projection designers Stefania Bulbarella and Dee Lamar Mills. These are often accompanied by sound effects -- including Turkish music, a Bob Marley song, crowds, and voiceover dialogue -- provided by Avi Amon.

It's a lush combination of design elements and, while we're at it, let's note the solid contributions of lighting designer Reza Behjat and costume designer Enver Chakartash. But the scenery, video, and sound also amount to a plot against Layla Khoshnoudi and Maribel Martinez, who make up the cast of Ebru Nihan Celkan's drama. The scenic ground plan is sufficiently large that one cannot play to one part of the audience without shutting out the rest. As it happens, both performers roam the space, declining to make eye contact while recalling moments from the past or, occasionally, taking part in inconclusive exchanges about their relationship problems. They might as well be talking to themselves; often, they are lost as they are in the rangy ground plan, overshadowed by video imagery and sonic effects. It's not just that one struggles to care about their characters; half the time, one can't even make them out.

Then again, Keenan Tyler Oliphant's production may be just what the playwright ordered, as Will You Come with Me? is an abstract study in the push and pull of commitment and ambivalence in a love affair between two women. Umut, who is Turkish and caught up in political action, falls for Janina, who is visiting from Germany. An affair unfolds across the years 2013 - 2018, but the women are separated by something more than distance; their plan, for Umut to move to Berlin, is perpetually put off because she cannot divorce herself from resistance activities; there's always another demo, or police action, or betrayal to worry about. Even when a friend gives her name to the police or when Janina flies in from Germany to collect her, she remains undeterred.

Celkan tells this story using a scrambled time frame that is, I think, intended to create dramatic irony; mostly, it sows confusion. More grievously, she never shows what Umut and Janina see in each other, nor does she gives us a sense of them as a couple. Instead of illuminating the collision between eros and politics that keeps them apart, Will You Come with Me? leaves one wondering why these women are together at all. Their scenes together, meant to have a taut, Pinterish quality filled with unspoken emotions, mostly feel stilted. The playwright also has a taste for arty locutions that, in their self-conscious reach for poetry, sound like something invented in a writing class. "I just have to imagine her eyes, and a thousand butterflies take flight inside me," Umut says. Later, she notes, "The papercuts in my heart snap closed one by one. Where have you been for the last thousand years? I've been waiting for you for a thousand years." Speaking about Janina's much freer life in Berlin, Umut says, "It's like everything there is covered in mold...do you know what I mean?" (Actually, that point could use a little expansion.) Janina is given an extended contemplation of a baby-blue eggshell that means...something.

Khoshnoudi is a familiar face who, only a couple of months ago, stood out in the fine ensemble of the union drama 7 Minutes, but she can't make more of Umut than the playwright has given her. Martinez has a warmer, more likable quality as Janina but she, too, is constrained by the limits of her role. Will You Come with Me? is a strange piece, its characters' passionate commitments trapped, as in amber, in a coldly formal exercise in storytelling. There's plenty of expertise on display, but most of it feels misdirected. --David Barbour

(25 May 2022)

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