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David Edgar's trilogy on the Soviet Union's fall in an ambitious local production 

Jeanine Frost in Burning Coal Theatre’s The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Photo by Jason Dail

Jeanine Frost in Burning Coal Theatre’s The Prisoner’s Dilemma

It makes a difference when you see them in the proper order.

That's one of my first conclusions after viewing David Edgar's worthwhile THE IRON CURTAIN TRILOGY, an examination of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, whose three plays are being restaged in rotating repertory by Burning Coal Theatre in an unfinished church on S. West Street instead of the company's usual Murphey School headquarters.

In seeing these works for the first time, I took the long, non-sequential route that Burning Coal had provided. Artistic director Jerome Davis made the ambitions of his then-new company unambiguous when he produced PENTECOST, the trilogy's second part, during Burning Coal's first season in 1998. After restaging it in 2007, Davis followed with the third section, THE PRISONER'S DILEMMA, in 2008, before producing trilogy opener THE SHAPE OF THE TABLE in 2011.

In these extensively researched works, a significant and necessary education awaits North Carolinians whose last or only look at world history came during a mandatory 9th-grade class. And when viewed in chronological order, they take on the increasingly panoramic sense of a gradual zoom out.

The Shape of the Table never strays from a single table in a government conference room as it examines the relatively nonviolent transfer of power in what is clearly a fictional stand-in for Czechoslovakia. (Following Twain's dictum that history never repeats, but certainly rhymes, actor Brian Linden's character, the intellectual leader of the play's velvet revolution, is named Pavel instead of Havel.)

But as Table unfolds, its scope broadens from one historic month in 1989 to scrutinize 40 years of Communist rule through the eyes of its present—and now failing—leadership, the dissidents quickly rising from the bottom of the culture and members of the old guard long left behind.

Though Pentecost remains similarly fixed in a dilapidated old church in a humble Polish village, it's a gripping meditation that considers the effects of a procession of ethnic, political and spiritual exiles dating back to the 12th century on the lands, cultures and regional art traditions they've passed through in search of sanctuary. The aperture then widens further to consider the dispossessed, the stateless and other modern-day refugees of Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Finally, The Prisoner's Dilemma, the most overtly cinematic of the trio, globetrots from a tony California academic conference to an unnamed ethnic enclave and hostage site eight years later, from a diplomat's home in Finland to the flight deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier. The play contemplates the ancient ethnic and religious divides that plunge a breakaway state, most likely in the former Yugoslavia, into civil war.

As Edgar dollies back through the trilogy, the vision darkens. Table's relatively sunny resolution is shaded by the wise warning of jaded former first secretary Joseph Lutz (a caustic Tim Davis) that all revolutions begin with idealism and then invariably change. By the end, young men with shaved heads have reportedly brutalized a foreign guest worker and begun spray-painting anti-ethnic graffiti on the city's walls.

In Pentecost, in a country torn between European, Asian and American influences, skinheads further destabilize a desperate international group of refugees lead by Yasmin, a Palestinian Kuwaiti (a steely Jeanine Frost) as the principles of the European Convention on Human Rights are undermined by the economic realities of an impoverished state.

The torture, bloodletting and open interethnic hostilities that actors Rebecca Bossen, Jeff Aguiar and Thaddeus Walker ably depict in Dilemma aim us in the direction of the Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian conflicts of the '90s before what seem like precursors of the Taliban menace a school teacher in a later scene.

Still, on opening weekend, those seeing these works for the second time may not have been entirely satisfied.

It's a tribute to director Davis and this cast of 22 that not a single minute in the trilogy's nearly seven hours drags. But pacing that was frequently too brisk reduced the drama—and the intelligibility—of certain scenes in these first performances. With so many of Edgar's central plot points occurring offstage, crucial reveals remained obscured when actors including the believable Matthew Lubin in Dilemma and an otherwise crisp Marc Carver in Table sped through dialogue.

Matthew Haber's minimal set serves Table well, and his frame for Molly Eness' striking mural abets Pentecost. But the corners cut in Dilemma's design are problematic. Where light, shadow and haze lent significant drama to the hostage zone in Burning Coal's initial production, the current scene looks annoyingly matter-of-fact. Insufficient differentiation in other scenes gives this production a flatness that belies the scope of Edgar's diverse locales.

Audience members should also be advised to dress lightly. Since no walls or ceilings buffer the HVAC unit noise in this unfinished space, it's turned off during both acts of all shows. As a result, Thursday and Saturday night's performances of Table and Dilemma were noticeably uncomfortable along the top rows of the audience.

A series of notable lead and supporting performances spangle these productions. In addition to those mentioned above, they include Hope Hynes' stand as art historian Gabriella Pecs, and Carver's take as her counterpart, Oliver Davenport, in Pentecost. Julie Oliver and Bossen's striking dual roles aided that production as well. Gil Faison showed growth as Pentecost's Antonio and American envoy Patterson Davis in Dilemma. Though Frost and Bossen's work as the anchors in Dilemma was strong, they couldn't supplant the lasting impressions Jenn Suchanec and Tamara Farias Kraus left on those roles in its initial production.

It's easy for Americans to kid themselves that we're so far removed from the ethnic, political and religious divisions that have spilt a host of countries in Eastern Europe and now threaten the Middle East. But look around. In our state and country, politicians increasingly choose their voters instead of vice versa. They carve out enclaves of the socially and religiously likeminded. They legislate legal, economic and social disadvantages for the different, openly hoping that they'll move elsewhere. The barricades have been going up around us as red zones grow redder and blue ones, bluer.

At this point, the major difference between our nation and the nations Edgar depicts here is one of degree. How much further must things go before scenarios in our own future start to resemble those on display in The Iron Curtain Trilogy?

Byron Woods is the INDY's contributing editor for theater and dance.

  • At Burning Coal Theatre through Sept. 27


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