By Marika Mashburn
Directed by Donovan Johnson
Oberon Theatre Ensemble
Jan Hus Playhouse
351 East 74th St. (560-2241)
Equity showcase (closes Feb. 24)
Review by Adam Cooper
School was in session at I, Unseen, Marika Mashburn's passionate but sophomoric play about the Taliban's oppression of Afghan women. Slated as part of Oberon Theatre Ensemble's current season prior to September 11, this production instantly became dated due to current events and a changing Afghanistan. Beyond the play's being old news, the didactic and derivative production was more fitting for the church in which the Jan Hus Playhouse resides than in the playspace for which the piece was intended. The exploration of the play's concerns, the total abrogation of human rights for women and the world's fundamental apathy toward it, were undermined by a text that marries a high-school report with television melodrama.
The lopsided structure of the play (the second act is over double the length of the first) is divided between a chorus of co-teachers who present choreographed history lessons on modern Afghanistan and a set of four episodic narratives that attempt to dramatize issues raised during the teachings. Between the pedantic lessons and the predictable story lines, the plot amounts to nothing a sentient audience hasn't already heard or seen.
The scenework revolves around four women dramatizing various aspects of oppression. Nazanee (Jennifer Larkin) is a young, loving wife who is expecting a baby. After placating her father-husband Radj (Ryan Tramount) over her well-being, she inadvertently experiences the consequences of walking unattended while seeking medical attention. Meena (Linda Hetrick) is an ill-fated women's-rights activist who meets with women and encourages them to reclaim hope and their identities and challenge the power structure through self-empowerment and information dissemination. Zhara (Alison Caldwell) is a wife whose husband is among the disappeared, and her repeated inquiries with the government ironically and fatally provide the information she seeks.
Finally, there is the outsider Joanna (Adria Woomer), an American psychologist doing investigatory research about the hardships women face under Taliban rule. She proves herself ignorant of Islamic culture and a naïve and arrogant interviewer as she presses Afghan women to speak openly about oppression. Inexplicably, after being chastised for her lack of sensitivity and know-how, she is called upon to help depressed Nazanee. Inexcusably, the play ends with her big "message" speech delivered straight to the audience.
Characterizations were mostly thinly drawn, and the situations that played out were hackneyed and uninspired. Hobbled by dialogue that echoed the intermittent history lessons, performances were stilted and unconvincing, both in their emotional truth and their verisimilitude to Afghan society under the Taliban.
Lively albeit westernized direction (Donovan Johnson) and choreography (Merle Lister) made head-thumping rhetoric and stale scenework reasonably entertaining. Costumes (Amanda Embry) presented a confusing mixture of Eastern and Western dress style. Set design (Denise Verrico), lighting (Charles Foster), and David Amram's music helped modestly in conveying atmosphere and mood. Taken together, the well-meaning production offered little sense of living history, of life under previous regimes, of the legacy of war and oppression, or of Afghan culture.
(Also featuring Donovan Johnson IV, Lora Lee Ecobelli, Dan Hicks, Nina Millin, and Grace Pettijohn.)
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Copyright 2002 Adam Cooper