Review: Timely New Play PETROL STATION Premieres at Kennedy Center

By: Mar. 25, 2017
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The cast of Petrol Station. Photo by Jack Llewellyn Karski..

Anglo-Kuwaiti writer-director Sulayman Al Bassam's new play PETROL STATION is as of-the-moment as it gets. Drawn from politics, literature, and myth, it features Muslim characters and is densely packed with urgent themes: justice for migrant workers, autonomy for women, cyclical violence. Epic set and lighting design (Eric Soyer) conjure a windswept desert in an imagined borderland torn by civil war, a dramatic backdrop that enhances the actors' delivery of poetic lines.

Al Bassam is no stranger to cross-cultural theater or to the Kennedy Center, having staged RICHARD III: AN ARAB TRAGEDY during the center's international festival in 2009. PETROL STATION, making its world premiere, incorporates Shakespearean elements - family drama, generational baggage - but it's updated for 2017. Unlike Al Bassam's previous works, this one features a cast whose members all identify as American, but the diversity onstage is still astonishing.

A handy insert in the program delineates three groups of characters: the Masters, the Migrant Workers, and the Refugees. The Masters include two half-brothers who are the petrol station's Cashier (John Skelley) and Manager (Galen Kane), fighting for ownership of their aging father's business. Girl (Christina Helena), one of the Refugees, arrives on the scene and sets a metaphorical match to the already-delicate relationships and hierarchies at play. Apart from this, the story is less than straightforward, so the play relies heavily on atmosphere. This isn't always a bad thing, because the set is visually stunning: an expanse of sand between tall, rusted structures, and a compact trailer to shelter the Cashier and his uncle, the Trafficker (Hardy Pinnell) from the unforgiving elements.

The sounds, too, are to be admired. Not only is the sound design (Joemca Castillo) detailed, down to the hushing of wind as a door closes and the lo-fi noise of an intercom, but the play is built around stirring music (composer Sam Shalabi). Refugee Noah (Cecil Blutcher) sings passionate gospel fused with contemporary hip hop. The Manager prays to Allah in a rich, heartfelt voice. The Cashier references THE SOUND OF MUSIC in an unsettling singsong voice and occasionally lapses into full-on musical theatre stylings. Migrants Bayu (Zachary Infante) and Khan (Kenneth De Abrew) beatbox and rap with abandon while they're supposed to be shoveling sand.

For me, the most moving moments are linked to this creative use of music, to humorous or cathartic effect. The actors also appear more authentic and in-character when singing or rapping. The spoken lines err on the side of poetry but, though deep and full of meaning, they sometimes tumbled out too quickly for me to process or left me emotionally cold.

Regardless, PETROL STATION is a powerful, immediate experience, and a fine exhibition for this international director. Radical in its visuals and innovative in its storytelling, it's unlike anything else.

Running time: approximately 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission.

PETROL STATION runs through March 26th, 2017, in the Eisenhower Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20566. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here or by calling (800) 444-1324.