A reflection of aggression and occupation

Theater review

November 09, 2005|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Early in Beyond the Mirror, there's a scene that looks as magical and mystical as a painting by Marc Chagall. Two men lift another and carry him horizontally, as if he were floating. Meanwhile, other actors walk by carrying a small rug, a basket and a silver teapot in their raised, swaying arms, as if these objects were also floating.

In context, however, this moment casts an eerie chill. It is part of a depiction of a Soviet attack on Afghanistan in which "everything floated in the air," as an Afghan is quoted in a subtitle.

A collaboration between New York's Bond Street Theatre and Exile Theatre of Kabul, making its U.S. debut at the Theatre Project, Beyond the Mirror blends American and Afghan actors and theatrical styles to paint a picture of the impact of almost three decades of aggression and occupation.

That this piece exists at all is a form of triumph and its own best example of international cooperation and cross-cultural understanding. Overall, Beyond the Mirror lacks the cohesiveness of Bond Street's Romeo & Juliet (a collaboration with a Bulgarian troupe, presented at the Theatre Project in 2003). But, under the direction of Exile's Mahmoud Shah Salimi and Bond Street's Joanna Sherman and featuring a half-dozen actors, Beyond the Mirror provides a rare look at Afghan culture and especially at ordinary citizens often overlooked in media reports.

Bond Street specializes in creating theater with companies in "areas of conflict." In this case, the collaboration began shortly after Sept. 11 outside Afghanistan, in a Pakistani refugee camp. There, Exile Theatre had been working outside the restrictive regime of its native land. Since then, the companies have performed at two Afghan theater festivals. After the Theatre Project engagement, they will take Beyond the Mirror to New York.

Slides, video clips, puppetry, masks, movement and original music (performed by Afghan musician Quraishi on a native instrument called a rebab and by American Michael McGuigan on various percussion instruments) combine to portray Afghan life from the Soviet invasion of 1979 through the Mujahideen wars and Taliban regimes to the present.

A shadow puppet of a man on a bicycle scales mountain after mountain, being stopped at checkpoint after checkpoint. Then an actor takes over the role. When, after being searched, the cyclist is killed, the actor shakes his arms wildly, while behind him, the jointed arms of two wooden rod puppets do the same. Without a word, the point is made - this murder is not an isolated incident.

Another scene offers a particularly unsettling fusion of live acting and puppetry. Anisa Wahab, a diminutive Afghan actress, tells us, via subtitles, that she was trained in puppetry from age 13. She is flanked by two soldiers who become her human puppets, comically slapping each other. But the comedy comes to an abrupt end when the puppets turn on the puppeteer and begin slapping her.

Although Beyond the Mirror includes some more traditional storytelling and even a couple of projected "World News Reports," the piece is based less on language than on images. Yet this largely nonverbal work succeeds in giving voice to the voiceless. For a bit more of the verbal, stick around for the informative post-show discussion with the directors and cast.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

Beyond the Mirror

runs 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; through Sunday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. $16. Call 410-752-8558, or visit theatreproject.org.

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