Theater Review ‘Damascus’ Leaves Us Little Reason To Hope

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Arts / Feb. 25, 2010 11:57am EST

By Charlie McMeekin

Wasim (John Herrera), who fancies himself a poet, attempts to romance his colleague Muna in the Northern Stage production of "Damascus," running through March 7 at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. (Provided)Wasim (John Herrera), who fancies himself a poet, attempts to romance his colleague Muna in the Northern Stage production of "Damascus," running through March 7 at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. (Provided)

Northern Stage’s current production of “Damascus” continues artistic director Brooke Ciardelli’s goal of bringing new theater pieces to the Connecticut valley. “Damascus” was first staged at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won the Fringe First Award. Brooke saw it there, and has spent the past several years trying to obtain the rights.

The advance publicity promised romance, laughter, and surprise as the play explored human relationships in the Middle East. So it was with great anticipation that I waited for the house lights to dim.

I was disappointed. The acting was superb, the set was beautiful, and the direction deliberate. The problem was the show’s central message.

Paul, a struggling textbook writer/salesman on his first trip to Damascus, points out that no matter what road or alleyway he takes in his wanderings through the city, all roads lead to the mosque.

“This city has been formed by accretions, layers and layers over time”, and at the heart of it all is the mosque. He holds forth that the same is true for literature, whose center is truth.

Pursuing this insight within the context of the play, the center—the truth—appears to be a desolate wasteland of failed romance, miscommunication, cynicism, and darkness. It is definitely a February kind of play.

Peter Simon Hilton, who plays Paul, beautifully portrays a harried and married Scottish purveyor of ESL texts he’s hoping that Wasim and Muna will adopt for the Syrian curriculum as they work to modernize their educational system. Wasim, portrayed by John Herrera, could care less for Paul’s pitches. His interest is in reuniting with Muna, his former student and lover. Lana Joffrey’s Muna is hauntingly beautiful, and she carried the performance through her dissection of Paul’s text, explaining Syria’s struggles to modernize while continuing to embrace its traditional Muslim values. As Paul agrees to modify sections of the text, he realizes he’s also falling for Muna.

Two other characters frame the play in strikingly different ways. The hotel manager is Zakaria, played by Vandit Bhatt. He’s high energy, high hormones, and high hopes, trying to bed two American girls and sell the story of his life as a movie script to Hollywood. At the other end of the spectrum is Elena, the hotel piano player, the omniscient observer. Nina Kassa is perfect for the role, unnoticed by anyone, but affecting all with her music. “I play to make them feel sad. It amuses me.”

Near the show’s end, playwright David Greig asserts his own thesis. “Doubt, timidity, hesitancy, these are the ways we go toward the truth. . . putting our hands out to feel the damp wall of the cave.”

And indeed, that was the prevailing mood by closing curtain with its promised surprise ending. Nothing was resolved, nothing gained, and most likely, nothing learned.

Perhaps that is the central message of the Middle East and its politics, and perhaps the intent was to send us out into the world with doubt, timidity and hesitancy. But I’ll hold out for the hope of finding some illumination, some light, at the center of the journey. “Damascus” leaves us with death, failure, and broken idealism.

“Damascus” plays at Northern Stage through March 7. Tickets may be reserved online or by calling the box office at 296-7000.


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