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Theatre in Review: Passage (Soho Rep)

Yair Ben-Dor, Andrea Abello. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

A young woman travels to a country not her own, a colony of her homeland, to start a new life with her husband-to-be. On arrival, she finds herself in a minefield of hidden resentments, feelings of entitlement, and social codes that seem impossible to crack. Seeking a bit of escape, she decides to visit one of the local natural wonders, a set of caves located some distance from the capital city, accompanied by two acquaintances. The day goes horribly wrong: An incident with a shotgun and charges of assault leads to scandal, broken relationships, and unraveled lives. If this scenario sounds familiar, it is: It's the plot of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. It's also the premise of Christopher Chen's Passage, as the cast cheerfully admits about halfway through. But this is neither a straight-up adaptation nor an act of thievery: Chen appropriates some of the elements of the novel, putting them into a rather different, and thoroughly contemporary, conversation focusing on unequal social orders breed suspicion, hostility, and worse. Or, as people used to say: No justice, no peace.

After a charming opening in which the members of the cast introduce themselves and their provenances, Passage gets off to a bumpy start, thanks to Chen's determination to present his story as a parable shorn of any details that would link it to a specific time or place. (To be sure, the time frame is contemporary, but exactly how much so is open to interpretation.) The characters are named (in alphabetical order) B, F, G, M, and Q, among others. The action is set in Country X, which exists under the thumb of Country Y. So noncommittal is the playwright that he doesn't even assign genders to the characters. Fair enough, but it occasionally leads to lines like "I was married once. But they died." This, I think, is less a bow to political correctness than a stab at universality, but the sheer absence of detail makes the early part of Passage rather dull, reducing the characters to abstract talking heads.

Furthermore, the political situation that dictates so much of what follows is only vaguely sketched in. Country Y occupies Country X; the latter seems to have little say about the situation and the president is regarded as not much more than a puppet. An incident in which a young boy is arrested and thrown into jail, merely for stealing a couple of a batteries, has become a flashpoint of controversy. But that's about it: If you loved Forster's novel, you may find yourself missing his ability to vividly call up the lost world of the British Raj.

Still, Chen's approach begins to pay dividends as one exchange after another quietly explodes with conflict. A conversation between friends, filled with political banter, jumps the rails when one informs the other that she cannot understand why he works for a management firm owned by citizens of Country Y, that he finds it acceptable to earn money from his oppressors; before it is over, she has all but terminated the relationship. B (of Country X), an accomplished physician, has recently won a prestigious award, but it doesn't stop her supervisor (of Country Y) from treating her like an intransigent intern when she is called into work on her day off and arrives late, through no fault of her own, when the roads are blocked by protestors. (This confrontation is a small masterpiece of controlled tension.) Q, the bride-to-be from Country Y, finds her fiancé thoroughly changed in this new environment; his manner oozing patronization, he steers her away from local restaurants in favor of more "mainstream" places. "Do you have any friends who are local, or native?" she asks. "Native? Like some native specimens you can observe?" he replies.

B and Q are linked by friendships with F, a faintly enigmatic figure who has arrived in Country X to be a teacher. It is she who suggests a trip to the caves, and, like Forster's Mrs. Moore, stays behind at the last moment. Q, at the behest of B, enters the caves alone; on edge and frightened by the strange atmosphere, she has an uncanny experience and a gun is fired. This will lead to a series of charges and countercharges between Q and B, leaving both of their lives in tatters. In an even more uncomfortable spot is F, who tries to stay friendly with both women, only to find herself accused by both of them of bad faith.

These fractured friendships mirror the situation in Country X, which, as far as one can tell, is humming, prosperous, and, ultimately, insupportable. One character notes, having characterized Country Y as evil, "And I'm not talking about the people, the nature of their souls in some hypothetical culture-less realm. And I'm not talking about the little acts of kindness they may dole out from time to time. I'm talking about what they're actually doing as a whole. Right here and now. And what they're doing... is not seeing us as human beings, as actual human beings, and so they're inflicting violence on us from this line of sight, and the ones who aren't literally perpetrating the violence are tacitly accepting the violence, from this same, this very same line of sight."

People keep trying to make personal connections in Passage, and sometimes they manage to, at least temporarily. But friendships are brittle things in Chen's play, erected as they are on a substructure of festering injustice. The play is loaded with scenes of intimacy that come apart as previously unspoken grievances rise to the surface, leaving the characters isolated and profoundly dissatisfied. (Interestingly, the one place where the submerged hostilities largely cease is in a temple to which some of the characters occasionally repair.) It is, as one character describes it, "the struggle of being together and being separate." She adds, "This will hit you differently based on the amount of--if I may--privilege or non-privilege you have. If you've experienced violence, or if you've experienced other hardships that were life and death to your soul, but seem too small so you don't voice them, they wound you from within, keep wounding, adding to the deep ocean of wounds of everyone else, over lifetimes and generations passed down."

That Passage becomes steadily more gripping is also a tribute to the keen-eyed direction of Saheem Ali and his fine ensemble, which includes Andrea Abello as the uncertain, increasingly uneasy Q; Purva Bedi as a jaundiced observer of Country X's occupation; Lizan Mitchell as an authoritative narrator of sorts, who poses some difficult questions to the audience; K. K. Moggie as B, whose self-assurance curdles into bitterness when her career is thwarted by the incident in the caves; and Linda Powell as the sympathetic, yet sometimes eerily unreadable, F.

The production unfolds in an attractive, if necessarily nonspecific, environment by Arnulfo Maldonado, with the audience on two sides facing a manually operated turntable and a series of angled arches illuminated from within. The lighting designer, Amith Chandrashaker, gets a surprising variety of looks out of what appears to be a smallish rig. Toni-Leslie James' costumes use color-coding to distinguish the citizens of Country X from those of Country Y. Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design includes a disturbing aural onslaught when the characters are inside the caves. (N. B: You will be asked to remove your shoes before entering the theatre, for no evident reason, and the seating is extremely uncomfortable if you require solid back support.) The problems facing the characters in Passage are knotty and not easily resolvable, and, even with its many difficulties, perhaps Chen was right to take his almost allegorical approach because his play often speaks directly to the questions -- about empathy, privilege, inequality, and exploitation -- that are roiling American society these days. Of course, he doesn't offer any direct answers. How could he? The more one thinks about these issues, the more difficult they become. -- David Barbour

(6 May 2019)

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