Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 20, 2012

The war at home

Powerful drama puts a personal face on Iraq conflict

by Karla Kane

Average Americans may think about the most recent war in Iraq only in abstract terms, or buzz words — when they think of it at all. Images that come to mind might be the overthrow of a brutal dictator; a Bush-administration blunder; the horrors of Abu Ghraib; a far-off incident in a foreign land. How many Americans have ever met an Iraqi, know something of their war experience, or are familiar with Iraqi culture?

For the people of Iraq, the war was an up-close-and-personal force that ripped apart lives and changed the face of a nation, for better or worse. It's the voices of these average, middle-class civilians — men and women not too different, it turns out, from their American counterparts — that are brought to light in "Aftermath," the powerful, compelling drama currently being presented in its West Coast premiere by the Palo Alto Players.

To gather the tales told in "Aftermath," American playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen traveled to Jordan to interview 35 Iraqi refugees who fled their native land during and after the war. The information gleaned from these interviews forms the basis of the play, which focuses on nine characters (plus one cameo) in a straightforward, documentary style, told largely in monologues.

True to the material's origins, the production is no-frills, with players lined up across the stage in everyday clothing with simple furnishings and props. The characters are a cross-section from various walks of Iraqi life.

A pharmacist from Fallujah; a theater professor and his painter wife; a wealthy Baghdad dermatologist (the hilarious Paul Jennings in a standout role); a Christian wife and mother; an Islamic cleric (wonderfully played by Indian-born actor/director Ravi Bhatnagar); and others take turns telling their stories. Mohamed Chakmakchi's Shahid serves as narrator and translator. Between vignettes he interjects helpful facts, interesting tidbits and occasional jokes about the culture, people and history of the diverse and ancient land known as the "cradle of civilization."

In addition to some acting veterans (Jennings, Bhatnagar, Gary Gerber and others) the cast includes several Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans, most of whom have little to no theater experience. Their naturalness works well in this case, as they bring the characters to life convincingly with just the right touch of honest awkwardness. Especially impressive is Chakmakchi in the leading role and as dramaturg, serving as the bridge between the audience and the rest of the cast. A warm and engaging presence, Chakmakchi lights up the stage. It's surprising to learn that this is the Mountain View teacher's first play.

All the actors spend some time directly addressing the audience, offering tea and coffee as if viewers were guests in their homes, creating the sense of a personal connection between performer and watcher. And though the play is performed mainly in English, Arabic phrases are frequently mixed in to nice effect.

The structure follows a vaguely chronological timeline, with characters in rotation describing their lives under Saddam Hussein and then the changes they faced after the American invasion, with its "Shock and Awe" campaign, military checkpoints and more.

At first the tone is light and peppered with humor. Life under Saddam's regime, while not easy, is somewhat stable (though restrictive). Husbands and wives meet, court and marry. Careers are pursued. Houses are built. Children are born.

Once the American occupation begins, the stories grow more harrowing and the tone darkens. A college student is murdered by U.S. troops in front of his mother and sister; a car bomb wipes out nearly an entire family; a man is wrongfully imprisoned and tortured at Abu Ghraib. Friends, neighbors and cherished possessions are left behind. The horrors of war are given a human face.

The characters all demonstrate the suffering, anguish and anger their situations have brought them. But in the end there is optimism, too, as they reaffirm their Iraqi identities and love for their country, despite their exile, and retain their senses of self.

Of course a brief play (one act, no intermission) cannot hope to offer an in-depth look at the complexities of an entire people. Instead, it very successfully gives American audiences a small taste of the war's impact on folks who, in the end, seem not so foreign at all.

Chakmakchi says it best in a note in the program: "We believe this play can show you something of the trials and tribulations, the hopes and humanity of these Iraqis whose lives have become so inextricably tied with our own."

Or, as I overheard an audience member remark upon exiting the theater, "It gives you a lot to think about."

"Aftermath" is simple, effective and moving, and should be required viewing for anyone hoping to expand awareness of a much-maligned yet vibrant culture.

What: The play "Aftermath," written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, presented by Palo Alto Players

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Jan. 22, with shows at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Cost: $29, with discounts available for seniors, students and groups.

Info: Go to http://paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.

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