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Burning Coal Theatre Company is always up for challenge. A dozen years ago, artistic director Jerome Davis and managing director Simmie Kastner scraped up $40,000 and started a professional theater — now they work with a $300,000 budget. For years, they bounced around, performing here and there — then they took on the renovation of the old Murphey School, a building that had sat empty and unloved for decades. At the first show there, late last season, Raleigh's great arts patron, Dr. Assad Meymandi, stood up with an offer to support the theater. At the opening night of this, Burning Coal's 12th season, it became official: the shows now go on in the Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School.
So, it comes as no surprise that Burning Coal's Jerome Davis wanted to take on English playwright David Edgar's dense and difficult recent play (written in 2000, first performed 2001) The Prisoner's Dilemma, a three-hour talkathon on getting to "Yes" when peace and justice don't intersect on anyone's Venn diagram. Set in an imaginary post-Soviet breakaway republic, Kavkhazia, with its split Kavkhazian and Drozhdan populations, may have been modeled on Chechnya; but it has much in common with the former Yugoslavia, and most chillingly, bears a striking resemblance to Georgia and Ossetia. When the company scheduled this production, they could not have known that by the time it hit the stage we would be in the New Cold War era. But by luck or cosmic synchronicity, this presentation of The Prisoner's Dilemma is as topical as today's NPR news.
Playwright Edgar has packed his script with thoughts and questions about power and control; about trust and belief; about shared and separate histories; and, most intriguingly, about language and meaning. Edgar was in attendance for the opening night — the American professional premiere of this play — to hear Burning Coal's cast recreate a Babel of accents and languages on stage, some of which Edgar had made up out of whole cloth. (Fortunately for us, everyone's common language was English.) All this language difference makes it as tough for the audience to understand the players as it is for the characters to understand one another, when first they meet during role-playing at an international peace seminar in Santa Cruz, and later when the academic exercises come to life after Kavkhazia has devolved into ethno-religious civil war.
The scenes are well-paced, and the large cast, many with multiple roles, was extremely well-rehearsed; but it seems likely that the remaining performances will both tighten up and loosen up to advantage after the stresses of this special opening night. Everyone did well, but the only actor who seemed fully relaxed in character was seventh grader Shaun Schneider, who plays the son of Finnish "honest broker" Gina Olsson, who believes with all her heart that diverse peoples can share space, for “if not, how could we live with it?” Jenn Suchanec is impressive in this role, well in control of her words (in three languages) and voice, but in need of a few fresh gestures. Schneider is one to watch for — he may turn out to be another wunderkind like Lucius Robinson, now a towering college student, who gets to use his Irish lilt as James Neil, a somewhat mercenary and hot-tempered foreign aid worker who helps precipitate a crisis in concert with the well-meaning but narrowly focused Floss Weatherby (an overwrought Julie Oliver).
Like Robinson, Stephen LeTrent emanates a dangerous energy and a seductive scent of revolutionary violence as Al Bek, a mixed-heritage man who chooses a position that will cause the most trouble. Most moving was James Anderson as Roman, a Kavkhazian who would prefer peace and conciliation but is buffeted by circumstance into promoting "the second-worst solution for everyone." Rob Jenkins is fabulous as Roman's colleague, Professor/Colonel Shubkin — a performance slightly marred by his additional appearance as a lawyer for the other side.
Tamara Farias Kraus is a knockout as Kelima, the radical Drozhdan separatist fighter now come with suit and briefcase to negotiate for her people's position, accompanied by Hasim Madjani (intense Equity actor Kirby Wahl, who's driving from Greensboro for this role — quick, somebody offset some carbons!). Of the numerous remaining cast, particularly noteworthy are Paul Paliyenko, the above-it-all professor and probably a CIA operative; and Byron Jennings II, in a cameo as an obnoxious U.S. State Department flack spouting egregious absurdities.
This is a play of important and engaging ideas, and the humor that leavens it is of a bitter variety. It is not an entertainment, and at moments feels as dreary and confusing as the news. But the problems that Edgar sets in the Caucasus are the same ones that beset us wherever we turn — do we set ourselves apart with our differences, or do we find our commonalities and join together? In the end, and in a paradoxical way, the play offers us a shred of hope for the latter; and that is welcome indeed.
The Prisoner's Dilemma continues through Sept. 28th in Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School. See our calendar for details. Please note that performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Best audibility and sightlines and least glare from the footlights will be had from the short end of the U.