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Blood and Gifts

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War is not healthy for children and other living things. That 1970s mantra is as true today as it was the first day man emerged from the caves and declared, “Mine!” It is also true in the West Coast premiere of Blood and Gifts, J. T. Rogers’  1980s historical fiction drama of the secret spy war behind the official Soviet-Afghan War, keenly playing out on La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum stage. 

 

How war is unhealthy for those actively engaged, both on battlefields and in embassy offices, and those drawn from a distance into its crusades by familial and political relationships is one theme of this excellently crafted and frankly acted play.

 

Depicted in ways both horrible and humorous, and a range in between, the conflicts of artillery and negotiation weave and unravel throughout a ten-year period, 1981-1991, when the Cold War was all the rage.

This story focuses on two key players in that Russian-American struggle, Dmitri Gromov (Triney Sandoval) and James Warnock (Kelly AuCoin), who meet in the Islamabad airport in scene one and plait their friendship of enemies until their final exit in the same location. Between those auspicious dates, they manage and attempt to control their respective Afghan and Pakistan warlords and officers, as well as each other, in an impossible chess game of espionage and insurgency.

Set and projection designer Kris Stone depicts the discord and the action with a forbidding and familiar concrete wall on which the actors sit, stand, patrol, and stroll. A bare expanse of stage with inventive squares of turf and terrain under glass supports conferences, caucuses, pontifications and parties without detracting from the narrative. Equally authentic are Charlotte Devaux’s unfussy costumes, Matthew Richards’ subtle lighting and Shahrokh Yadegari’s sincere music and sound. 

She has a marvelous cast, and Lucie Tiberghien’s direction is excellent, eliciting the maximum effect of each minimal move. She helped in the early development of this complex play, which showcases the manipulations that took place behind the obvious conflicts. In the first scene, deciphering who the players are and what each wants to achieve, takes some concentration. The principal actors shouting over each other and creating a chaos of tirades is a bit disconcerting, adding to the perplexity. However, the cacophony emphasizes the power struggles as no man listens, truly, to the others. The point is made, too, that it may not really matter whom each man represents in this specific section of a battled past. All war contains its backstage intrigues.

AuCoin is scrupulous in his portrayal of the complicated persona and position of the CIA operative James Warnock, and Sandoval gives grand dimension to the intriguing, often beguiling, Russian spy Dmitri Gromov. In the strangeness that is war, the two characters come to trust each other, sharing stories of wives and children as they thrust and parry their demands and counters. Trust is another theme in this play. Whom to trust and who trusts in return are elements that shift, predictably, and then not so much, especially concerning the other key players in the story. Colonel Afridi  (Amir Arison) and Abdullah Khan (Demosthenes Chrysan) and his aide Saeed (Babak Tafti) are waging wars on their own soil, and English intelligence officer Simon Craig (Daniel Pearce), like Dimitri and James, is doing battle from a field office.

War is not a light subject, but those whose lives depend on it make it a human one. Arison makes the volatile Colonel a chilling, yet humanl, figure, and Danvir Singh Grewal shows off the counterpoint happy innocence of his military clerk. Chrysan creates a sympathetic Abdullah Khan with an alternately affable and intractable effect. Pearce draws the demoralized Simon with a broad brush, giving him some clownish behaviors in the fool’s role without diminishing the character’s insightful persona. Tafti brings out the impetuous nature of the young Saeed, and Sarah Halford adds a cool feminism to her role as Congressional staffer, making a sharp character contrast to Scott Patteson’s portrayal of the fawning Administrative Aide.

This is a play with ample humor and irony, both of which move the action and lighten the heavy load with shots of sarcasm, some of it satirizing the U.S. influence on world’s cultures. James answers an urgent phone call from a Pakistani officer at 4 a.m. only to learn that he is demanding a boom box and Duran Duran tapes in exchange for information. Pakistani soldiers surround him so they can ask their most important question, “Who is Weaver, and do you know her?” James puzzles this until they break into a swooning chorus of “Dream Weaver.” Clearly, each man has his own perspective, with a singular portion to gain or lose.

As Simon says, “Pakistan is the Israel of this region,” and later, describing the Afghans’ charm and lack of trustworthiness, he deems them “the French without the food.” Relying on their own compatriots and bosses of various ilk and intelligence is not as clear or easy as dealing with the devils they know day to day. So, for some, the war is personal more than, or while it is, political.

Therein lies yet another dimension of this complex and intriguing tale. James is determined to make amends for his side’s previous abandonment of the warriors and civilians that helped the U.S. cause. He wants to help the Afghans win. Yet his boss is equally adamant that “that is not why we’re there. We’re there to keep the Soviets from winning the cold war.” Simon feels demeaned by his Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and his American alliance, the first because she has invested her war budget elsewhere and deprived him of status and power, the ally because it demands fidelity without input. He wants only to come away with a sense of having made a difference, yet he has little control over making that come to pass.

Although he understands his pawn-like position more than the others do, Simon is not alone in being manipulated. James may be the player with the most field experience, but he is at the mercy of his opportunistic boss Walter Barnes (expertly wrought by Donald Sage Mackay) and the powerful Senator Jefferson Birch (a steely southern Geoffrey Wade), both of whom have their own agendas and ultimatums. Before a Congressional committee meeting at which Abdullah Khan is to speak, James urges him to “tell them what they want to hear. The truth is for us.” Khan will get the arms he wants, but James will have to pay a personal price. He expects Khan to return the favor, in time.

In the end, all realize that, like truth and trust, any control was merely an illusion. When Abdullah Khan reveals a secret kept only “because you never asked,” and refuses repayment for his good deed, James is devastated. Because his overshadowing ego allowed him to believe in a trust with Abdullah Khan that he thought he had earned, James’ final lesson is more crushing.

As this story says, wars are not for winning. Instead, the object is to make the war less healthy for the other side than it is for one’s own. Nevertheless, this outstanding play makes all the lessons well worth the study.

Blood and Gifts continues on the La Jolla Playhouse Mandell Weiss Forum stage through July 8.  Performances are at 7:30 pm Tue-Weds; 8:00 pm Thu-Sat; 7:00 pm Sun. Matinees at 2:00 Sat-Sun. Additional performance at 7:30 pm July 2. No performance on July 4.

For reservations:  1-(858) 550-1010 or online at LaJollaPlayhouse.org

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.