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What I Heard About Iraq (A Cry for 5 Voices)

(l to r) Bernadette Speakes, Ryun Yu
and Tony Pasqualini

I have a soft spot in my heart for plays based on real dialogue. Shows like Gross Indecency or the work of Anna Deavere Smith - that attempt to illustrate real events through the words of people who lived them - have a quality about them that fascinates. They're an example of truth being stranger than fiction, as they always include some snippet of dialogue that would be impossible to believe had it come from the pen of a playwright. "No real person would possibly say that," you think, except someone actually did.

What I Heard About Iraq (A Cry for 5 Voices) is one of those plays. Based on Eliot Weinberger's provocative article, the stage adaptation by Simon Levy uses direct quotes from politicians, U.S. soldiers, and Iraqi citizens to tell the story behind the war in Iraq. The play opened at the Fountain Theatre on September 11 - on that date, there were readings of the play (or versions of it) around the world, but the Fountain hosted the world premiere of the fully-staged version.

The short play (one act, no intermission) features a multi-ethnic cast of five actors who alternate lines, with no characters assigned to any particular actor. Instead, each line begins with an actor saying, "I heard George Bush say …" or "I heard Colin Powell say …" or even, "I heard an unnamed soldier say …" and then that actor, or another, delivers a quotation from the identified speaker.

The statements are arranged in chronological order and therefore tell the history of the war as it unfolded. The "I heard [someone] say …" technique has a way of making all of the performers listeners as well as speakers. The play isn't just about George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney speaking; it's that we, the American citizens, heard them say these things, and reacted to them. Sometimes, the performers try to affect the speech patterns of the government officials whose words they are saying; it's pretty funny, but you can't help shake the fact that it sounds like a Saturday Night Live parody. It works better when the performers don't try to sound like the leaders whose words they are saying, and instead just take on the persona of the listener. "I heard George Bush say [something]" has much more power when it is spoken with the voice of an American who desperately wanted to believe what her President was saying, rather than someone just doing an imitation of the President.

Make no mistake, the show, which accompanies its dialogue with photographs and film clips, is definitely taking a position - and that position is that the war in Iraq is baseless, costly (in terms of lives as well as money) and, perhaps most significantly, unwinnable. If you're the sort of person who is, in general, opposed to the war, What I Heard About Iraq may well focus that opposition and compel you to do something to stop the war as soon as possible; because there will likely be something in the show - some fact, some statistic, some outrageous statement made by a government official - that will make you think, "This just has to stop."

At the same time, I question how persuasive What I Heard About Iraq would be to an audience not already questioning the war. It isn't that I think What I Heard About Iraq should be more objective in its coverage - the play is obviously intended to make a statement and its dialogue was selected to best get that point across. But an audience that may be predisposed to support the war might completely disregard the play because it is so clearly one-sided. To take one example, the show portrays Saddam Hussein as a harmless man who sits in his cell all day writing poetry and reading the Koran, without ever taking note of a single statement that he may have made spurring the Iraqis on to combat. What I Heard About Iraq would stand a better chance of changing minds if it anticipated, acknowledged and refuted the arguments that favor the war. Without that, it will likely be just another case of preaching to the converted.

What I Heard About Iraq runs at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood through October 9, 2005. For information, see

The Fountain Theatre presents What I Heard About Iraq, based on the article by Eliot Weinberger; adapted for the stage and directed by Simon Levy. Set Design Scott Siedman; Lighting Design Kathi O'Donohue; Multi-Media Design Daniel Seidner; Sound Design David B. Marling; Creative Media Consultant Brad Schreiber; Dramaturg Scott Horstein; Production Stage Manager Nina Soukasian; Produced by Stephen Sachs; Assistant Director Riley Steiner; Directed by Simon Levy.

Cast: Marc Casabani, Darcy Halsey, Tony Pasqualini, Bernadette Speakes, Ryun Yu.

Photo: Ed Krieger

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