REVIEW: Alumnae Theatre's PALACE OF THE END
As theatre patrons somberly filed out of Alumnae Theatre's production of 'Palace of the End,' it seemed as if the air had been sucked out of the small studio theatre. Not only had we experienced a phenomenal work of playwriting staged by a stellar production, but we had been on the receiving end of a visceral account of atrocities inspired by the Iraq war. This was not a case of art imitating life - this was life, in its undistorted reality.
Playwright Judith Thompson's 'Palace of the End' is told in a collection of three monologues. Based on real events, the monologues recount the story of a young and pregnant American soldier (played by Laura Vincent) in disgrace for her treatment of Iraqi prisoners, a disillusioned British weapons inspector (Christopher Kelk) inviting us to witness his suicide, and an Iraqi woman (Sochi Fried) sharing the heartbreaking story of her family's torture.
It is said that monologues can often overpower an actor, that the playwrights' words can prove to be more compelling on their own if the actor's delivery and interpretation falters. Without the support of an ensemble, a monologue rests in the hands of a lone actor who may or may not rise to the challenge. In this particular production, the trio of actors breathed such life and intensity into their respective monologues that it appeared as if they had lived with them for years.
Laura Vincent plays 'Soldier,' a character based on Lynndie England, the American soldier who was convicted in 2005 in connection with the torture and prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Vincent crafts a multilayered performance which elicits strong counter-feelings of both disgust and empathy. As Vincent's 'Soldier' recalls (in a frighteningly detached and nonchalant tone) the unspeakable abuse of the detainees at Abu Ghraib, she caresses her pregnant stomach with maternal tenderness, creating a disturbing juxtaposition. To her credit, Vincent is able to deconstruct England's despicable facade and manages to tap into a vulnerability and, remarkably enough considering the heinous acts that England was convicted of, a credible level of humanity.
Christopher Kelk plays Dr. David Kelly, the British weapons inspector whose report on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq set off an international political storm. Kelk's performance is the most subdued of the three, yet the most controlled. Kelk's Dr. Kelly is a torrent of conflicting emotions waiting to erupt. As he systemically recalls the events leading up to his suicide, his quiet seething anger underlying the narrative is palpable throughout Kelk's time on stage. One sees Kelly as a defeated human being whose morality found itself in an internal war with his patriotic duties. Kelk's choice of physicality (very little movement, save a hand gesture here and there) is excellent, and as his breathing becomes noticeably shallow towards the end of his monologue, we know he is tittering over the edge. Ultimately, he breaks down uttering the phrase, 'The truth must be out!'. With this final and moving display of integrity, we are observers to Kelly's catharsis which prefaces his untimely death.
Sochi Fried delivers the play's most gut-wrenching monologue, that of Nehrjas Al Saffarh, an Iraqi woman recounting the heartbreaking story of her family's torture in the Palace of the End (Baghdad's infamous 'House of Horrors'). During Fried's introduction (comprised of some witty observations on cultural differences), she exerts herself as a woman of independence yet also exudes a nervous energy one may associate with a carefully kept pretense hiding a painful secret. This secret is soon out, and the tone shifts dramatically as she recounts how she, along with her young sons, were brutally tortured. Fried's retelling of the torture she suffered at the hands of her interrogators is so vivid that it is difficult to sit through. Friend's performance is deeply touching, and a particular scene in which she explains the love she feels for her sons brought tears to my eyes. Yet here is where the only critique of the production comes into play: Fried supposedly plays a woman in her late 50's, whereas by looking at the actress, one would assume the age range to be in the 30's. Nonetheless, the calibre of Fried's performance makes this point an easy one to overlook.
Director Jason Maghanoy helms a professional and cohesive production. Maghanoy places the speaking actor at the front of stage, yet makes full use of the other two actors whose pantomime and minimal dialogue provide context to the lines being spoken. The actors rotate on a bare stage; there is no accompanying music, sounds, or distracting props. Maghanoy rightfully recognizes that the stories carry ample emotional weight to unfold on their own.
Alaina Perttula's lighting design results in the intimate setting befitting of these confession-like monologues. While the speaking actor is fully lit, the two actors in the background stand partially lit; shadow-like witnesses to the dramatic events. A blinding white light hovering over Fried during the simulated interrogation scene is particularly effective in creating an oppressive and near-claustrophobic tension.
The strength of this play invariably also lies in Thompson's exceptionally raw and powerful material. Thompson is a master at excavating the recesses of the human psyche. Alumnae Theatre's production of 'Palace of the End' has devised from Thompson's work a piece of theatre that will haunt and move you. In the program's director's notes, Maghanoy writes, "We tried to capture the fear in the piece, the cruelty, but balance it with this idea of a startling and powerful hope." Such dark material may leave one wondering where exactly this proverbial hope lingers, but then we're exposed to a faint glimpse of it at the very end. In a very tender final scene, all three characters huddle together and exchange glances with one another with a mutual understanding (perhaps a hint of respect?) of their personal and all-too tragic journeys which binds them together in possibly more ways than they could imagine.
If you can, see this play, but don't expect to walk away with answers or a resolution of any kind. One needs only to tune into the evening news or pick up a newspaper to realize that an end to the nightmare is, regrettably, nowhere in sight.
'Palace of the End' runs until November 28 at the Alumnae Theatre. Performances are from Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 2:00 pm. The Alumnae Theatre Studio is located at 70 Berkeley St., 3rd floor, in Toronto. For tickets and information call 416-364-4170 or visit the theatre's website.
Photo of Laura Vincent, Christopher Kelk, and Sochi Fried courtesy of Alex Felipe.