by Ann Chamberlin
Directed by Melody Brooks
New Perspectives Theatre Company
Midtown International Theatre Festival
New Perspectives Theatre, 750 Eighth Avenue
279-4200 (1-8 pm) or culturefinder.com
Equity showcase (closes Aug. 26)
Review by Doug DeVita

In an intriguing program note, Ann Chamberlin recounts how she got the ideafor her even more intriguing play Jihad. "I got the idea ...while my son was learning to play chess ...as I watched his mind turn to the total annihilation of his opponent with a keen and inborn energy that terrified me to watch, I felt I must either take away his chess board ...or write this play."

Depicting a fictional meeting between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, leader of the Islamic forces during the Crusades of 1192, Jihad explores the timeless themes of war, religion, and that mother of all battles - that between the sexes. Using the game of chess as a metaphor, a mysterious woman, who may be mother, wife, lover and perhaps Goddess, helps these men come to question the validity of their quarrel and the very foundation of their beliefs.

Chamberlin's text is an exquisite piece of writing - seriously funny, mystical, and poetic, and with a logical, dramatic thrust that moves both the story and its underlying themes forward with clearsighted precision. And under Melody Brooks's superb direction, the production unfolded with the explosive energy of an ever-changing fireworks diplay.

As Richard, Alan Steele was a ferocious force, and if his performance wasn't subtle, he was at least a convincing loutish brute. George Spencer used his commanding voice and physical presence well as Saladin, although there were times when his elegance seemed a little restrained for the action at hand. As the Woman, Nick Janik gave the most satisfying performance of the evening, every character a distinct individual, her every appearance igniting the evening with galvanizing electricity.

The physical production was a sterling example of how to achieve the look and feel of lavish decoration with very little. Melissa Bruning's costumes were rich with period detail; the set, little more than well-chosen pieces of fabric, was a colorful, sumptous evocation of the interior of Saladin's tent (set design consultant: Ronald Norsworthy); the uncredited lighting was spot on with its light and dark effects mirroring the light and dark inherent in Chamberlin's script.

The New Perspectives Theatre Company received an OOBR Award for Jihad in 1996 - it has been revived as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival. As a piece of theatre, it was a fascinating and rewarding evening; as a production it could stand as a signature piece for New Perspectives.

Box Score:

Writing: 2

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Set: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2

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