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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Miranda
Illusion Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Flower Drum Song, The Pink Unicorn and Little Shop of Horrors


Steve Hendrickson and Carolyn Pool
Photo by Lauren B Photography
Early in James Sills' terrific new play Miranda, being given a superb world premiere production by Illusion Theater, you will meet a woman named Dana. Soon afterward, you will learn that her name is Susannah, until later yet you discover that she is actually the title character, Miranda. In the course of the play, she is all of those woman, for she is a CIA agent who fully absorbs whatever persona—not only a name, but a full biography—is handed to her with each new assignment. But internally she is always Miranda, the name she grew up with, with the complex array of choices and demons that have led her to this hair-trigger life.

The play begins in 2014 with Miranda (as Dana) in Amman, Jordan, with a couple of old friends from an earlier stint in Tunis. In Tunis, she was Dana ... but not in Amman. However, these friends spotted her, hailed her as Dana, and so, she has become Dana once again, in the public space of a hotel bar. This was a huge mistake, compromising her Amman cover. The couple appear to be part of the idle rich adrift in the Middle East. They are enjoying their drinks, bemoaning the lack of alcohol in much of the Arab world, when an explosion rocks their hotel.

We next find Miranda in Aden, Yemen, a nation in the grip of civil war. She is being coached by the field office manager, Reed, to become Susannah, a former Peace Corps volunteer now working for a non-profit with the hopeful name Building Bridges that uses the arts to teach peace-making skills to youth. Specifically, she will direct teenagers to enact Shakespeare, Othello being chosen as their first play. Sadly, only one student shows up—an astute and articulate young man named Shahid.

Miranda's assignment as an agent is to make contact with a doctor who has been under surveillance, and turn her into a CIA asset. Dr. Al-Agbhari is a woman, and female doctors are scarce in Yemen. Unlike male doctors, she can touch her women patients (she has only women as patients), and therefore can treat the beloved wives and mothers of men with the means to secure her service. These women greatly appreciate Dr. Al-Agbhari's healing touch and open nature, and she becomes a confidante to many whose husbands or sons are engaged in highly dangerous, highly secretive activities.

Over two acts, Miranda pivots between briefings with Reed, appointments with the doctor, and Shakespeare classes with Shahid. In the CIA office, Reed has announced his impending retirement and we meet Lauren, the tough-as-nails Regional Director whose directives to Miranda seem at odds with Reed's; at the doctor's office, Miranda finds openings that turn the good doctor into a CIA asset; and at Building Bridges, she and Shahid engage in insightful discussions of the nature of heroes and villains, the roles of males and females, and the nature of truth within a story. They read scenes from Othello that seem to mirror the course of Miranda's own life. We also learn Miranda's personal history, the forces that drive her to live such a rootless, solitary and dangerous life.

The fact that all of this takes place amidst a war zone, in a country racked by poverty, becomes almost a matter of course, merely how things are. A description of two young boys innocently playing in a crater created by a drone attack makes this point all too well. Tension rises as Miranda gets closer to a breakthrough, and a climax is reached. But for Miranda, each climax never brings resolution, but becomes a portal to the next assignment, another persona, another tightrope walk to continue her endless crusade against dark forces.

Carolyn Pool is simply wonderful as Miranda, tough and courageous in the pursuit of her work, reflective in consideration of Shakespeare's depictions of good and evil, and torn internally between a life of concealment and the desire to break out and be a real person in the world. Pool is on stage almost continuously, and never flags as she shifts seamlessly among the roles Miranda must play. She also has a convincing command of Arabic, which she uses at times in conversation with the doctor.

The other cast members are all splendid as well. Delta Rae Giordano stands out as Dr. Al-Agbhari, who by turns is a model of dignity, a font of compassion, a fierce fighter for the welfare of her clinic and its patients, and a terrified victim of the violence in her world. Steve Hendrickson creates a full portrait of a man who has nowhere to go with his regrets as Reed. He is both a taskmaster and kind to Miranda, as he sees her entering the endless tunnel that became his life. Hendrickson is also dandy as John, the besotted Englishman at the hotel in Amman. Beth Gilleland brings humor, guts and candor to her portrayal of Lauren, and is a delight as Rose, a Baton Rouge belle who ended up married to John. Ricky Morisseau is persuasive as Shahid, demonstrating the complexity of his mind as he ponders life's big questions, by way of Othello, Iago and Desdemona, and tries to find his own landing place.

James Sill has devised a narrative that immediately gets our attention, and never lets it go. His dialogue feels true throughout. Michael Robins directs the piece with a straight upward line of suspense, as the risks become greater, both in the political hotbed of Aden, Yemen, and in Miranda's internal emotional minefield. Given the changing personas and settings, Robins is able to establish clarity around who is who and where we are at any time.

The physical production is very effective, with three squared-off pillars bearing Islamic geometric designs anchoring the settings, effective costumes, and particularly good use of sound and light to emphasize the sudden presence of danger. Slide projects use maps to effectively establish location, and to provide vivid images, such as a Blood of Dragon tree, a plant native to Yemen. Miriam Gerberg's original music beautifully enhances the sense of place as well.

I always applaud theater companies that create new work, expanding the repertoire and addressing new subjects. In truth, some of these efforts are not very good or arrive not yet fully formed, but at least the effort has been made. It is through such continued efforts that on occasion a theater strikes gold. Such is the case with Miranda. It is a well written play exploring a world that links directly to today's headlines, through the story of a single individual whose life had been given over to this world, but who continues to wrestle with the anguished feelings that led her to its door. In Michael Robins' production, Miranda shines, a solid achievement for Illusion Theater.

Miranda continues through February 18, 2017, at Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $20.00 - 38.00. Senior (55+) and Student (with ID) discounts are available. For tickets and information call 612- 339-4944 or go to illusiontheater.org.

Writer: James Sill; Director: Michael Robins; Set Design: Dean Holzman; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Costume Design: Barbara Portiga; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Production Manager and Prop Design: Sarah Salisbury; Original Music and Music Supervisor: Miriam Gerberg; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Arabic Coach: Antoine Mefiah; Scenic Artist: Dee Skogen; Special Effects: Sean McArdle; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhodes.

Cast: Delta Rae Giordano (Dr. Al-Agbhari), Beth Gilleland (Rose/Lauren), Steve Hendrickson (John/Reed), Ricky Morisseau (Shahid), Carolyn Pool (Miranda).


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