Blood and Gifts
Sprawling saga feels totally and exactly right
(or in other words, Wow!)
|TimeLine Theatre presents|
|Blood and Gifts|
Review by Lawrence Bommer
WOW—spelled backwards! Every stage minute in this two-act thriller totally justifies the bravura work that super-skilled, incredibly meticulous TimeLine Theatre Company puts into this Chicago premiere. Their current slice of life and current affairs, J.T. Rogers’ galvanizing history play Blood and Gifts is an engrossing—and ultimately demoralizing—look at the early days of our Afghanistan connection (before the 2003 commitment, our current fiasco). With video signage depicting a perilous decade (1981-1991) and many locales in Pakistan, America and Afghanistan and documentary-accurate costumes by Jenny Mannis, director Nick Bowling’s sprawling saga feels totally and exactly right. But then Rogers knows this subject from the inside out, and he puts us there, ready or not.
Timothy Edward Kane, a concentrated “force field” in every role he takes, trenchantly depicts James Warnock, a C.I.A. agent sent to “Pashtunistan” (as the members of that tribe call it, refusing to acknowledge the ethnically-ignorant, British-imposed distinctions of Afghanistan and Pakistan). Of course, this “graveyard of empires” is a quagmire for its current interlopers–the trespassing Russians (who fear Islamic rebellions in their border holdings and will lose 15,000 soldiers for nothing). So it was for the Romans, Parthians, the Greeks under Alexander, Mongols, British, and, of course, for Americans who learn nothing from history (not even our own, a certain defeat in a civil war in Vietnam). Chief lesson here: “No one can be trusted.”
Warnock makes his painstaking way to warlord Abdullah Khan (stern to overwhelming Kareem Bandealy) and his Western-influenced aide de camp Saeed (Behzad Dabu, as both a rock-music adaptor and willing martyr). Joined by British agent Simon Craig (hilarious Raymond Fox as a bureau chief/spy who gets no respect home or abroad), Warnock defies his strangely amiable Russian adversary (sly and supple Terry Hamilton) and schemes to arm the mujahedeen (much as depicted in the film “Charlie Wilson’s War”). But is he simply seeding the bad karma of a war that will return to engulf us? (Rhetorical question, this.)
Of course, no well-intentioned meddling in another country’s affairs goes unpunished. An increasingly discouraged Warnock must negotiate a minefield–bureaucratic C.I.A. infighting, congressional support based on Cold War prejudices, Christian favoritism to Islam over Russian atheism, and the Sunni-versus-Shiite tribal clashes over who gets the bribes, sniper rifles, and Stinger missiles. To keep these belligerents and unstable allies human, we learn a lot—perhaps more than we want–about their marriages, children and homesickness.
But, most keenly, Rogers delivers a searing, bittersweet back story on our current Afghanistan nightmare. He shows how arming these pestilential tribes gave them the weapons, training and motivation to oppose American troops 15 years later and today, both in Karachi and Kabul. Throughout Rogers’ swirl of whiplash intrigue, the combatants keep urging the “primacy of trust”—and keep undermining it with every self-serving, short-sighted dirty deed mired in suspicion and stupidity. It’s tragically human but equally unforgivable.
It’s hard to do justice to the crisply incisive, sometimes incongruously hilarious, dialogue; to a plot full of “war games” that moves swiftly even as it goes downhill, and to the humanity of a script that explains, without excusing, war crimes wherever they crop up, be they Russian atrocities, Afghan brutality or American mischief-making. In defense of Russia, it’s easy to believe that if China invaded America in 50 years, these D.C. “patriots” would be fighting guerrilla wars across the land, committing the same heinous outrages for which we blame Islamic extremism today.
Throughout this crash course in Middle Eastern chicanery, Bowling inspires tensile performances from all 14 players, notably David Parkes as the fiercely defensive and territorial C.I.A. honcho, Craig Spidle as a senator who exactly resembles the zealot/war enabler Charlie Wilson, Anish Jethmalani as a deeply devious Pakistan colonel in the I.S.I., and Emily Ariel Rogers as a robotic congressional staffer.
Apart from the excellence of this surefire hit, TimeLine has filled its lobby with a warren of prefabricated field offices filled with maps, chronologies and pictures of Afghanistan, its leaders, the Russian invasion, even an old-fashioned fax machine choking with dispatches. It’s a play—or at least a setting—in itself.
Because Rogers looks for the humanity in his humans, he inevitably appeals to our own. — And then there’s the 150-minute drama’s final, intractable scene: It’s set in 1991, exactly 10 years before America’s chickens came home to roost. We see in Bandealy’s bellowing Khan the literally spitting image of our great nemesis (and, at this time, cherished ally), the unspeakable mass murderer Osama bin Laden. It’s almost as frightening as a bomb in Boston.
Blood and Gifts continues through July 28th at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map), with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 4pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $22-$42, and are available by phone (773-281-8463) or online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information available at TimeLineTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Lara Goetsch
Timothy Edward Kane (James Warnock), Kareem Bandealy (Abdullah Khan), Anish Jethmalani (Colonel Afridi, Abdullah Khan), Raymond Fox (Simon Craig), Demetrios Troy (Colonel Afridi, June 12-July 28), Craig Spidle (Senator Jefferson Birch), Owais Ahmed (Pakistani Military Clerk, Mujahid Warrior), Behzad Dabu (Saeed), Terry Hamilton (Dmitri Gromov), Josh Odor (U.S. Military Aide), David Parkes (Walter Barnes), Emily Ariel Rogers (Congressional Staffer), Andrew Saenz (CIA Analyst, Mujahid Warrior), Peter Sipla (Mujahid Warrior), Don Tieri (Political Speechwriter)
behind the scenes
Nick Bowling (director), Collette Pollard (set design), Jenny Mannis (costume supervisor), Jesse Klug (lighting), Mikhail Fiksel (sound design, original music), Mike Tutaj (projections), Julia Eberhardt (props design), Joshua Altman (dramaturg), Peter Andersen (asst. director), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Habibullah Wardak (cultural consultant, original music), Michelle Bradley (asst. dramaturg), Andrew Carter (asst. dialect coach), Lauren Hickman (stage manager), Shelbi Cox (production assistant), John Kearns (production manager), Caleb Charles McAndrew (tech director), Meg Grgurich (scenic painter), Mac Vaughey (master electrician), Lara Goetsch (photos, marketing)