Sunday, March 02, 2008

War and Betrayal

At Friday night dinner, our friend Nella told us about the performance of Macbeth she and her husband Jack saw this past week at BAM, describing it as the most transcendent and absorbing theatrical experience they had ever had.

Instantly, I took stock of the memorable Shakespearean productions I have seen -- Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford Upon Avon in England in the spring of 2004; King Lear performed by a community theatre in Middlebury, VT some 15 years ago; Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires three summers ago; As You Like It this past summer at Shakespeare on the Hudson in Garrison, NY; Kenneth Branagh's masterful film adaptation of Hamlet, first glimpsed at Cinematheque in Jerusalem in 1998.

Though I love the inspired lunacy and quick wit of the Shakespearean comedies, I am utterly undone by his tragedies, adore finding myself face to face with such grand themes as Fate and Irony and The Vast Indifference of the Universe, not to mention Tragedy Itself.

Shakespeare's sense of the tragic lingers long after one has left the theatre. That is part of his genius and his enduring appeal. Shakespeare's tragedies are exquisite torment, a sore tooth to be tested every few moments by a probing tongue.

Hearing Nella gush about BAM's Macbeth induced me to move it to the exalted Must-Do position on my cultural To-Do list...until last night's SoHo production of George Packer's exquisite, urgent and of-the-minute drama, Betrayed rendered Shakespeare suddenly irrelevant.

This blog is not a repository for reviews, so I will demur detailing the superb performances of the Culture Project cast, or the well-wrought script by Packer, a journalist who had been sent to Iraq by the New Yorker and who wrote the award-winning book, The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq.

Betrayed is based on Packer's experiences as a journalist in Iraq. The essence of the play's success lies in his ability to isolate one aspect of the fiasco that is the War in Iraq: the betrayal of Iraqi civilians who risk their lives for the Americans, going to work every day in the American compound as translators, as drivers, as secretaries and support staff and eventually find themselves marked for death by Iraqi death squads and civilians for being so-called "spies."

What Packer found out though his interviews with these brave, principled, desperate or foolish Iraqis is that the American government couldn't care less about their fate. And as US personnel and officials hid behind protocol and codes and bureaucratic procedure, many of the helpful, America-friendly Iraqis were hunted down like dogs and killed.

The War in Iraq is many things, none of them good. It is based on a lie that is built upon a house of lies that is difficult or maybe even impossible to untangle.

It is misguided, confused, poorly-planned, badly-executed, ill-led, immoral and, yes, very tragic. Packer is not so lefty as to pretend that Saddam wasn't a monster, that life under his regime was not a hell for Iraqi civilians. He doesn't glorify Iraqis either, making certain that the audience understands the manners in which they botched opportunities for their own redemption.

The play is not an anti-War in Iraq polemic, but it is pretty difficult to emerge from Betrayed feeling good about George W's war. Still, George P steers clear of too-easy, sloganeering politics to shine a klieg light on one terrible narrative in the midst of this tragic war.

The story that Packer illuminates allows the audience to shift from a general political stance to something far more tangible and specific: sadness, despair, outrage or just plain anger at the US government's moral and bureaucratic abandonment of the Iraqi civilians who risked their lives to help the US effort BECAUSE THEY BELIEVED IN AMERICA.

By the time the curtain falls on Adnan's soliloquy, the audience is stunned into heavy silence, brought to a place beyond consolation. Packer's Betrayed is drama beyond redemption. It presents a glimpse of hell, tragedy as a darkened funhouse whose roof is caving in and whose floor has rotted away.

And the culprit, the demented grand carnival master, is not the Germans or the Russians or the Japanese or Lady Macbeth this time, but the Americans.

The United States.


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