Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Also see Richard's reviews of Peter and the Starcatcher and I Married an Angel
Mounted in the intimate space of the Royce Gallery, A Message is billed as a farce, tackling themes of politics and religious differences and the underlying fabric of intolerance for the Other that divides us all. Heady themes for a comedy, but perhaps laughter is the best way to deliver "a message" without making it preachy or unpalatable. Satire is often used to make us see a social ill and ask us to think about change or correction.
Dr. Musalam's play starts off introducing us to several disparate characters in an African airport waiting area: a Catholic priest (Ray Renati), a Muslim imam (David E. Moore), a Buddhist grad student (Anne Yumi Kobori), and a photojournalist (Laura Jane Bailey) who later declares herself to be an atheist. The cartoon-like priests argue about their religious differences, but sound essentially the same; the two women express being mystified as to why the men can't be friends. All four have their reasons for journeying to "the oil region" of a fictional Nigeria (the play is set in 2033), to examine the American occupation or to convert the "natives."
They leave to board the plane and the scene shifts to a military outpost, where a buffoonish American Sergeant (William J. Brown III) grapples with his loneliness, seeking comfort in a Playboy magazine, and argues with his wise Nigerian manservant Tomokaty (Armando McClain). Political and social rankings are illuminated with the entrance of the idiotic and truly mad General (also Renati). The American mission for being in this part of the world also gets lampooned, along with the military's version of diplomacy. When a young, optimistic (naive?) Lieutenant arrives (Jennifer LeBlanc), she's dispatched to the wartorn oil region to try and make peace with words and mutual respect instead of weapons.
After a lengthy and troubling duet between Tomokaty and the Sergeant, who have accompanied the Lieutenant to the dangerous jungle, we finally get convergence of the two storylines when the original four characters are literally dropped into the action. From here the play becomes more serious, with lives in danger from various sources, including rogue "independent contractors" who have turned terrorist. The photojournalist's injuries necessitate a long trek back to the nearest American base. Will they make it, traveling in such dangerous territory? Will their encounter with the terrorists prove fatal? Will the Lieutenant's mission to make peace through dialogue win the day?
The play's resolution takes a dramatic departure into surprising territory, and seems to negate many of the promising themes in favor of a deus ex machina kind of ending. Political questions, oil wars, religious difference, terrorism, and intolerance all get swept away with one epiphany. It's too pat an answer, and depends on a giant leap of faith that many will not be willing to make. The Lieutenant's simplistic declaration at the end does nothing to clarify, as the others are intent on maintaining their different traditions anyway.
The terrific talent in the strong cast does much to make the script come alive, and ably delineates the rather stereotypical characters. The two "straight" characters to the farcical ones, Tomokaty and the Lieutenant, are brilliantly realized by McClain and LeBlanc, and they also get to speak the few pearls of wisdom that shine through the text. Bailey brings great honesty and authenticity to her character and the final scene.
Brown, Renati and Moore carry the bulk of the farcical elements with their characters, to mixed results. Often the humor is spot on; other times there's too much shouting, too much over-the-top even for farce. A simpler approach may have served this particular text better.
Lighting by Joanna Hobbs and set design by Ron Gasparinetti are effective in this small theatre, seamlessly allowing for different locales and moods.
The ASF's mission and successes overseas are praiseworthy and impressive. Hopefully, they will continue to garner support for their endeavors and the cause of Arab-American relations through theatre.
A Message by Dr. Hussain Al Musalam, Adapted by Matthew Spangler, presented by Arabian Shakespeare Festival at the Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa St., San Francisco; through November 17. Tickets $18 - $25; available at www.arabianshakespearefestival.org.
- Jeanie K. Smith