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Theatre in Review: Against the Hillside (Ensemble Studio Theatre/Radio Drama Network)

Mohit Gautam, Rajesh Bose. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

The toxic effects of drone warfare have, in the last few years, spawned some powerful dramas. George Brant's Grounded, produced twice Off Broadway, looks deeply into the shattered soul of an Air Force pilot who spends her days tracking a Middle Eastern target from a hut in Nevada. Gavin Hood's film Eye in the Sky is a tense thriller that probes the complex, often corrupt, politics behind such remote-control acts of murder, not to mention their effects on members of the civilian population who, all too often, end up as collateral damage. I'd like to say that Against the Hillside is a fine addition to these works, but Sylvia Khoury's play is so strangely structured that it undermines its own best intentions. In addition, its argument is so lacking in nuance that it communicates but a single point, that drones are terrible weapons -- and do you really need a play to tell you that?

The early scenes shuttle between Pakistan -- where a married couple, Sayid and Reem, struggle to get by in the face of drone bombings -- and Nevada, where Matt, an Air Force pilot, is crumbling from the strain of following Sayid and Reem's every movement. The scenes, depicting their marital squabbles, oddly mirror each other: Reem informs Sayid that, under their current conditions of constant surveillance and the threat of bombing, she has no intention of having another child. (They have a small boy, who is disturbed by the sound of airplanes.) Matt's wife, Erin, who is pregnant, is sick of him bottling up his emotions, and wants him to talk to someone -- or, better yet, to get himself redeployed to some less troublesome form of duty. She has a point: Matt has begun identifying emotionally with his potential targets. Speaking of Reem -- whose name he has correctly guessed -- he says, "I know things about her that no one else does. That her husband doesn't know."

We never find out exactly what such things are, as both couples engage in irritatingly repetitive disputes that go nowhere. Still, certain nagging questions occur, most of which the playwright has no interest in answering. "Tell me, Reem," Sayid says, "what makes us so remarkable? So remarkable that the birth of our child will be watched like the birth of a prophet by men thousands of miles of oceans away?" I think we'd all like to know the answer to that, but it is never provided. Is Sayid, a shopkeeper, somehow allied with jihadists? Is his store perhaps a clearinghouse for terrorists? Or is he an innocent who has run afoul of the US military only by happenstance? Khoury doesn't begin to evoke the texture of life in a part of the world where religion and politics merge, often to destructive effect. The only nugget of information forthcoming is Reem's comment that "the men who frequent your store, they aren't saints." Even less clear is how Sayid and Reem know they're being watched, especially since Sayid makes the point that no bombs have fallen within a fifty-kilometer range. The early scenes of Against the Hillside are marked by a frustrating vagueness that makes it difficult to engage with the participants of these two troubled marriages.

Any hopes that these fuzzily rendered situations will be further elucidated are dashed as key characters drop out and the play wanders in several directions, ending in a series of dramatic dead ends. The focus shifts to several other underwritten characters, including Anthony, an eager young Air Force recruit who can't wait to work alongside Matt; Jared, Matt's commanding officer, who suffers terrible career reverses; Ahmed, a young Pakistani man who has an eye for Reem; and Farid, an engineering student who is tutored by Sayid and dreams of turning the tables on the US by creating planes to spy on America. In the wildest leap of all, the action jumps ahead forty years to detail the fate of a character who, before this, has remained offstage. It's an imaginative wrap-up, but hardly a satisfying one.

With characters who amount to figures on a game board, and a total unwillingness to engage any of the complex political and religious issues surrounding the situation, it is next to impossible to care what happens in Against the Hillside. Khoury's relentless critique of this automated form of warfare should be a slam-dunk -- the moral arguments to be made are plentiful -- but she has so thoroughly subordinated plot and character to the overarching theme that the play comes off as a Sunday sermon, making a point about which, I would venture, there is little disagreement among those in the audience at Ensemble Studio Theatre.

For what it's worth, William Carden's direction keeps things moving, and the thoroughly professional cast does their best to bring these pale figures to life, although no one manages to do standout work. Jason Simms' set, with its black tile floor backed by a wraparound frieze of moss-covered stone, is attractive and flexible enough to allow superfast scene changes. Barbara Samuels' lighting subtly creates a variety of atmospheres. Sydney Maresca's costumes range from military uniforms to salwar kameezes, all of them accurately rendered. Shane Rettig has supplied some attractive incidental music and sound effects, including a powerful explosion.

It's always good to see a playwright tackling the thorny issues of the day -- and Khoury gets points for ambition -- but this material has been handled far more effectively elsewhere. Against the Hillside tries to say too much, and, in the end, it ends up saying very little. -- David Barbour


(9 February 2018)

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