Monday, November 21, 2011

theatre review BLOOD AND GIFTS, Off Broadway, November 20

I'll be the first to admit that the intricacies of foreign politics is something where I'm not that knowledgeable.  Sure, I know the basics of what's going on in the world, but all of the details behind political unrest and turmoil in overseas countries is just something where I lack understanding and knowledge.

So I went into JT Rogers' Blood and Gifts, a play about the US involvement in the Afghanistan war with Russia with a little hesitation.  I'm happy to report that the play is an excellent piece of theatre and for those of us less politically inclined it isn't too much over our heads and doesn't require much prior knowledge of the events to have a rich and full evening.  After a previous run last year at London's National Theatre, it officially opens Off Broadway at Lincoln Center tonight.

Set during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and with a CIA agent as our main entry into the intricate jockeying for power on all sides and from all countries, Blood and Gifts is an extremely rich, entertaining and suspenseful thriller of a play.  The play begins when the agent arrives in Pakistan in 1981 to provide secret funding and ammunition to Afghan freedom fighters and ending 10 years later with the outcome of what those actions causes.  Rogers has crafted a well written and easy to follow play and director Bartlett Sher has created an intense production yet one with extremely personal connections to the characters and actions of the play.

Bernard White and Jeremy Davidson
Over the ten year period, the play basically shows how US support of the mujahideen, that mainly involved supplying weapons to stop the Russians from winning the cold war, basically contributed to the rise of Islamist extremism.  It is a play all about trust and relationships but one that ultimately shows something we already know, that we pretty much paid and supplied weapons to those we trusted and thought of as our allies that were then used to arm our future enemies.

Jeremy Davidson, Jefferson Mays and Michael Aronov
Moving swiftly and fluidly over the 10 years across  Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US, the play stars Jeremy Davidson as haunted CIA operative Jim Warnock who believes he is doing what is right by trusting the Afghanistan fighters and trading political favors to arm them to fight against the Russians.  Davidson is spot on in this part and is truly believable as an agent who is conflicted in wanting to do what is right even though at times he knows he is in danger and that he might actually be doing something wrong.  His performance and the character of Warnock, and many others in the play, reminded me of the portrayal of soldiers in the films The Hurt Locker and Brothers.  These officers, soldiers and agents know they are in danger but when they come home find themselves numb from the lack of adrenaline and excitement that putting themselves in harm's way as well as the belief and feeling of doing something right for the country they love which makes them go right back into the dangers of war.

Jeremy Davidson, Gabriel Ruiz and Jefferson Mays
It is a play all about influence and as I said before, trust.  The relationship formed between Warnock and an Afghan warlord played superbly by Bernard White is so well written that you feel the bound between them but also aren't quite sure if they can truly trust each other.   Even over the entire 10 year period of the play you still feel that way, something that I have to believe is true about many of the relationships that US agents, soldiers and politicians have formed with their overseas allies. 

While the play only hints at and never shows the true blood shed that our actions cost, the play is at times intense but also one with many moments of humor, mostly supplied by Jefferson Mays as a British secret service agent who befriends Davidson. 

Robert Hogan, Jeremy Davidson and Bernard White
There isn't one bad performance in this cast of 14.  Other notable cast members include Pej Vahdat as an American loving Afghan freedom fighter, Gabriel Ruiz as a Pakistan ISI Colonel, Michael Aronov as a KGB agent who you never know exactly what side he's on, John Procaccino as Davidson's supervisor and Robert Hogan as Senator Jefferson Birch.  They are all perfect in bringing their parts to life.

The rest of the ensemble plays multiple parts with Andres Munar especially effective as both an Afghan soldier and a CIA agent.
Pej Vahdat
Not only is Sher effective in the way he stages the action but I especially liked the use of benches on three sides of the stage as a way for the characters in the play to sit and watch the action that is going on in front of them.  The set design by Michael Yeargan is simple yet effective.  Costumes by Catherine Zuber are perfect at showing the cultural differences between the countries and lighting by Donald Holder is extremely effective and some of the best lighting I've seen in a play in a long time.  The Mitzi Newhouse theatre is a perfect space for this play as it allows you to get close to the action and to have a personal connection to the events that are unfolding in front of you.

Blood and Gifts is an extremely well written play that perfectly shows how political savvy, trust, fear and the constantly changing and shifting alliances between multiple countries is a huge struggle for not only a single country but also one man to deal with.  It is personal, political and not to be missed.

Highly recommended

Official Show Site

Interview with JT Rogers, author of the play:

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