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Review: WE DECLARE YOU A TERRORIST. . . at Round House Theatre

Review: WE DECLARE YOU A TERRORIST. . .  at Round House Theatre
Cody Nickell (The Writer) and Elliott Bales (FSB Officer) in "We declare you a terrorist..." at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

On October 23rd, 2002, an armed Chechen militia group stormed the Dubrovka House of Culture in Moscow in the middle of a performance of the new Russian musical, Nord-Ost. The terrorists held patrons, artists, and staff hostage for over two days, until the Russian government - led then, as it is now, but Vladimir Putin - sent in special forces who deployed a fentanyl-derived gas ahead of a raid in which they killed the militia members; unfortunately, nearly 300 hostages died as well as a result of the gas.

This tragic event serves as the backdrop of Round House Theatre's production We declare you a terrorist. . .. The world premiere of Tim J. Lord's play had a long journey, starting as an idea in 2003, a year after the Moscow theatre siege and in the wake of the disastrous start of the 20-year Iraq War. Lord noticed parallels between the two events and the public's understandings of them: he noted that while both operations were initially successful, the aftermath was far from so. He also thought about how the people of each nation viewed the events - first as a military success, then as something unpleasant and better forgotten, even as fighting continued and more lives were lost. As the political circumstances within each country worsened, Lord saw the Moscow theatre siege as a way to examine broader political questions, particularly how each society faced tyranny and incomplete truths about their nations' actions.

We declare you a terrorist. . . takes place a year after the Moscow theater siege. The playwright of Nord-Ost (Cody Nickell) has been caught attempting to sneak into Chechnya through the Georgian border, and is being held for questioning by an FSB Officer (Elliott Bales). Throughout the interrogation, the audience is shown details of the playwright's harrowing experience during the siege, where he was held hostage by a young Chechen woman, Kayira (Ava Eisenson), alongside a teenage Russian girl, Masha (Bekah Zornosa). Desperate to help and curious by nature, the playwright starts talking to his captor, wondering why a young woman would strap on an explosive vest and join a group of militants on a suicide mission. He learns about Kayira's life in Chechnya - the Russians' refusal to accept its independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, how she watched her home be destroyed by the Russian military, how she lost her family, one by one, only to find them in a mass grave. Despite his position as her hostage, the playwright sympathizes with Kayira, though his sympathy is balanced by Masha's reminders that harming more innocent people is hardly a solution. Back in the present, the FSB officer also reminds the playwright of the consequences of terrorism, telling him of attacks taking place that resulted in deaths across Russia, including the officer's own nephew. He points out that the terrorists have manipulated the playwright by playing on his sense of compassion as well as his survivor's guilt, for having survived the siege that took place during his production while others didn't. The FSB agent's manipulation of those same traits only further complicates the playwright's precarious position.

Review: WE DECLARE YOU A TERRORIST. . .  at Round House Theatre
Ava Eisenson (Kayira), Cody Nickell (The Writer), and Bekah Zornosa (Masha) in "We declare you a terrorist..." at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

We declare you a terrorist. . . is a one-act, intense production, that raises a lot of questions about how people respond to and fight against some of humanity's most horrible impulses. But what makes this particular production so successful is the strong cast: Cody Nickell, as the playwright, shows the audience a conflicted, haunted man whose compassion and helplessness drive him to take risks to try to fix something far beyond his control. Nickell's performance is heartbreaking, and it's believable that even an FSB interrogator would be moved by him. As said FSB interrogator, Elliott Bales puts on a fascinating performance - he keeps his prisoner and the audience off-balance, occasionally delightful, occasionally terrifyingly threatening, and commands the stage as though he is indeed the one in charge. Conversely, Ava Eisenson's Kayira feels more human than expected when her character is introduced; Eisenson lends some careful glimpses of humanity to the terrorist, helping the audience see what would compel the playwright to sympathize with his captor. Her passion and heartbreak are clear, and it's hard not to be moved by her, even as she stands armed with the intent to kill. Rounding out the cast is Bekah Zornosa's Masha, a thoughtful, bold teenager whose innocence contrasts sharply with her too-observant view of the world and her shouldered burden of protecting her parents, especially her fragile mother. Zornosa shows the audience the swirl of early maturity Masha's circumstances have produced alongside her youth, and creates a compelling character the audience can't help but invest in.

On the production side, co-directors Ryan Rilette and Jared Mezzocchi worked with Dramaturg Naysan Mojgani to bring to life Lord's thoughtful script in a deliberate and impactful way; the team clearly researched into the events surrounding the play, and their attention to detail pays off tremendously. Lawrence E. Moten III's scenic design is convincing as a black-site used for interrogations, though I'll admit to occasionally wondering about the actual layout of the building (the room where Boris is being tortured next door is also treated as the entrance/exit, so I did wonder why there wasn't a hallway). That said, I will admit to one major point of frustration through this production: the projections used for the flashbacks to the siege. While I found the decision to show those particular scenes as projections to be impactful, I couldn't fully understand the decisions that went into the execution of this technique. Per a behind-the-scenes video, the production team placed live-streaming cameras around the stage and in a room behind the theater, where Eisenson and Zornosa recorded their interactions with the writer in real time as he recalled the details of the siege. Through earpieces and cameras on the stage, the cast was able to interact remotely as though they were together. While the technology is impressive, the result is a bit disorienting, with the separate streams appearing in different proportions, often even within the same scene. The projections were also off-center, often showing two of the characters with the third projected awkwardly displayed over the pipes that lined the side of the stage until the character joined the action, leading to rapid resetting of the projections when they did. Also, Nickell started out acting out his portion of the flashbacks on stage alongside his projections, then stopped partway through the performance; it was an odd decision to not have him either do this consistently or not at all.

There's certainly something timely about We declare you a terrorist. . . premiering now, as Russia, once again under Putin's control, lays siege on neighboring Ukraine, but Lord's script also makes it clear that the show's relevance goes far beyond the current war. It examines how citizens consider their own leaders' decisions, the role we can each play in opposing or supporting our government's actions, and the impact those actions can have on people all over the world. It's a powerful play, with a compelling story for sharing these broader ideas, and hopefully this premiere will be the first of many productions to come.

Round House Theatre's production of We declare you a terrorist. . . is part of the National Capital New Play Festival, and runs through May 8, 2022. Run time is approximately 1 hour, 45 minutes, with no intermission. More information on the show, including tickets and pre- and post-show discussions can be found on the Round House Theatre website.

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