A post 9/11 predicament

theater review

Dignity Players stages the fear of Arab-American 'person of interest'

March 15, 2009|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Founded on belief in the inherent dignity of everyone, Dignity Players begins its fifth season at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis continuing its mission of presenting plays that focus on social justice. This season's opening production of Arab-American playwright Yussef El Guidi's Back of the Throat illustrates the effects of the U.S. Patriot Act on Arab-American citizens.

In this dark, sometimes comic drama examining post 9/11 attitudes toward Muslims, protagonist Arab-American writer Khaled is visited by two initially friendly but puzzling government officials, who become menacingly probing and later abusive toward an astonished Khaled, who discovers that he is the focus of a government inquiry into his alleged terrorist ties.

Dignity's founder Mickey Handwerger directs this 90-minute production without intermission, instantly commanding our attention and holding us riveted as tension mounts in Khaled's ominous situation - relieved only by a few darkly humorous interchanges. Handwerger has assembled a group of gifted actors headed by Chris Haley as Khaled and visiting government agents played by Mark Hildebrand as Bartlett and Dan Kavanaugh as Carl. Supporting this trio are four actors perfectly suited to their roles: Peter Garvey as Asfoor, Niji Ramunas as librarian Shelley, Becki Placella as ex-girlfriend Beth, and Alicia Sweeney as club dancer Jean.

Starring in his fourth Dignity production, Haley proves his versatility as a rather na?ve writer welcoming his government visitors before being drawn into a cat-and-mouse game that reduces him to a bewildered American citizen asserting his rights only to discover that he has none as he confronts a circumstantial nightmare.

Kavanaugh's government agent Carl first seems a dolt who becomes increasingly menacing - his manner grows more rough and his large size enhances the effect.

Amusingly, the agents give Khaled an evaluation form assuring him that they've had "training putting people at ease" and that his opinion is important to them, while politely voicing their "appreciation for filling out the form later."

Hildebrand's agent Bartlett has an understanding of Arab culture. He asks Khaled how to pronounce his name correctly, commenting, "It's that back-of-the-throat thing." At first seeming gentler and more thoughtful than his colleague, Hildebrand's Bartlett later indicates his eagerness to inflict torture.

The evidence against Khaled is a combination of what they've found in his apartment that indicates interest in Islam, politics and pornography, along with suspicion of his involvement with terrorists, suggested by Khaled's former girlfriend and a librarian.

Actor Pete Garvey makes his Dignity debut as the enigmatic Asfoor, who is caught in the paranoia climate encountered by Arab-speaking Muslims, unable to communicate in English.

Ramunas plays librarian Shelley, whose attempts to befriend Khaled alternate with her suspecting his involvement in a terrorist plot with Asfoor, which she has a duty to report.

Placella plays Khaled's ex-girlfriend Beth, whose suspicion that he was having an affair motivated her to follow him to discover his meetings with a strange man and woman. Now Beth fulfills her patriotic duty by informing the government.

In a memorable Dignity debut as club dancer Jean, lithe Alicia Sweeney heats up the stage with her steamy pole and lap dancing.

A final performance is set for 2 p.m. today. Tickets priced at $15, with a $5 discount for seniors and students, can be purchased at the door at the Unitarian Universalist Church off Bestgate Road.

Also available are subscriptions for the full season of The Diary of Anne Frank, scheduled May 1-10; A Bicycle Country (tale of Cuban exiles set in 1990s) Aug. 6-10; and Blue Orange (a psychiatric chess game) Oct. 2-11. Call 410-266-8044, ext. 127, or go to www.dignityplayers.org.

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