The Prisoner's Dilemma
Burning Coal Theater Company
Through Sept. 28
"I hope you now understand two things," a polite, nearly diffident playwright David Edgar said to the audience of The Prisoner's Dilemma just after the end of its opening night performance last Thursday. "When big and rich countries, even with the best of possible motives, move into other countries and try to tell them how to run themselves, there are frequently unintended consequences.
"Secondly, these wonderful American actors have dispelled the belief that audiences in this country can't cope with the theater of ideas, political theater or large casts. They've taken a complicated, difficult and lengthy play by the throat and made sense of it."
It's hard to argue with that assessment—implicit self-critique included. Burning Coal Theater has chosen to open its 12th season with one of the most challenging scripts they've ever attempted, for actors (who play in multiple roles, accents and languages) and audiences both. Coming from the company that's brought us Uncle Tom's Cabin, Travesties, All the King's Men (Parts 1 and 2) and two iterations of Mr. Edgar's Pentecost, that's saying something.
Since playwright Edgar and director Jerome Davis throw us straight into the maelstrom without a compass, we're likely at first to feel nearly as disoriented as the nameless, but armed and wild-eyed, woman who careens about the stage reeling from the dissonance of competing choruses that border the stage during the opening tableau. It does take a few minutes—and strictly undivided attention—at the start to figure out the rules by which the first part of this world works.
A further shock to the system comes after well-heeled participants basically tear apart a glib, not quite ready for prime time, diplomatic simulation on conflict resolution between ethnic populations at an international symposium, when we find ourselves plunged into the real thing itself. Somewhere in a fictive former Soviet republic called Kavkhazia, a naked hostage, his head bagged, is threatened with electrocution from a car battery by agents of a breakaway ethnic insurgency, moments before he's freed, unharmed, with a message for the central government. A deal is, conceivably, possible—in the name of Allah, the most merciful.
From that point, we watch—at times with held breath—as teams of negotiators, representatives, fellow travelers and second- and third-party mediators try either to construct or sabotage a verbal arch of understanding over the chasm of armed conflict that two parties have known since the collapse of the Soviet Union: a Christian minority in control of that country's government, and an Islamist majority who want self-determination now.
In Edgar's skillful hands, we see that diplomacy involves finding a common language—and making the right choices in a potential minefield of terminology. The considerable suspense we experience repeatedly during this Dilemma suggests just how much nerve it takes to construct a bridge of words while you're standing on it at the same time. It also points to the stakes involved when that structure has to accommodate and support the desires for freedom and demands of justice of two peoples as well.
Much of that suspense is generated thanks to two riveting performances. Newcomer Tamara Farias Kraus gives freedom-fighter and insurgent negotiator Kelima an enviable razor's edge as she cuts through the sophistry and rhetoric of diplomatic lies. Jenn Suchanec is every bit her equal in the role of Finnish mediator Gina Olsson, a woman whose commitment to equity and the diplomatic process blinds her to a fundamental truth we're likely to find difficult to bear as well.
What is that inconvenient truth, exactly? That would be telling—a spoiler too far, by far. But rest assured, figuring out the American truth—and how it looks from abroad—in this gritty, brainy workout of a play should keep you more than occupied during a three-hour show that seems a lot shorter.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.