World premiere looks at the human toll behind war photography
|The Gift Theatre presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
By bearing witness to all but unfathomable suffering, war photographers take on a heavy burden. Through them, distant conflicts reach right into the homes of those worlds away both geographically and culturally. Photographs from war zones make us lose our innocence by stripping away our ability to remain in blissful ignorance. Once you’ve seen the image of a drowned toddler washed up on a beach or a nine-year-old screaming while napalm eats away her skin, you can’t go back.
But the power wielded by photographers such as the one in Mona Mansour’s Unseen comes with a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Istanbul-based Mia (Brittany Burch) is exposing horrors that might otherwise continue unchecked. On the other, there’s nothing she can really do to assist the bloodied, desperate people she photographs. In playwright Mona Mansour’s uneven 80-minute world-premiere drama, Mia is struggling under the weight of guilt and amnesia.
After being found nearly dead at the site of a massacre, Mia holes up in her girlfriend Derya’s (Ashley Agbay) home, fighting to remember just what happened right before she sent her last batch of photos off to her editor. Though the script is problematic, director Maureen Payne-Hahner creates a somewhat compelling portrait of cultures colliding – and sometimes powerfully meshing – under traumatic circumstances.
Still, there are significant issues here. The primary one is that Unseen never really plumbs the lives of the Middle Easterners central to Mia’s work and personal life. Instead of viewing the war through the eyes of those without means of escape, it’s presented primarily in terms of how it impacts someone from the U.S.
Mia is indeed committed and passionate about her work, but she’s the storyteller, not the story itself. Putting her front and center marginalizes the very world she’s charged with capturing. This problem grows worse when Mia’s mother Jane (Alexandra Main) arrives. Once that happens, the woman on stage with the biggest stake in the war – Derya – starts slipping toward third wheel territory.
That said, the performances are strong and the technical director David Preis’ design elements bring vivid, richly detailed atmosphere to the play’s world. Scenic artist Elyse Balogh has covered the Gift Theatre’s walls with Arabic script, literally surrounding the audience with the language’s immersive beauty. Brock Alter’s projections capture the violence of war and the terrifyingly uncertain, staccato rhythms of on-the-ground conflict. Sound designer Sarah Ramos makes an eerie, haunting connection between the rapid-fire shutter clicks of a camera and the pop of guns, while set designer Sarah JHP Watkins creates a space that easily transitions between morphs from Derya’s apartment to the battlefield.
It’s a tad ironic – and frustrating – that the unseen elements of Unseen are the very people Mia is devoted to bringing into the light.
Unseen continues through April 9th at The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3:30pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 2:30pm. Tickets are $30-$40, and are available by phone (773-283-7001) or online through Vendini.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TheGiftTheatre.org. (Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Claire Demos
behind the scenes
Maureen Payne-Hahner (director), Sarah JHP Watkins (scenic design), John Kelly (lighting design), Rachel Sypniewski (costume design), Sarah Ramos (sound design), Brock Alter (projections design), Elyse Balogh (scenic artist), Sarahi Salazar (props), Corinne James (stage manager), Sammi Grant (dialect coach), David Preis (technical director), Sarah Luke (production manager), Emjoy Gavino (casting director), Claire Demos (photos)