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In Burning Coal Theatre Company’s provocative presentation of A Map of the World by British playwright David Hare, a successful middle-aged British novelist of Indian origin (THINK V.S. Naipaul) is invited to give the keynote address at a UNESCO-style international conference on world poverty. But his conservative political leanings have not gone unnoticed. To avoid ugly incidents during his speech, conference organizers ask Victor Mehta (Neil Shah) to begin his remarks by reading a statement prepared by a committee of incensed left-wing journalists and indignant delegates from some of the poorer Third World countries, such as M’Bengue (P.J. Eatman) from Senegal, apologizing for the portions of his writings that may have offended the farther-left-leaning members of his audience.
To read it or not to read it, that is the novelist’s dilemma. While he is making up his mind, he encounters a young British journalist named Stephen Andrews (Brendan Bradley), who is covering the conference for a left-wing literary magazine, and a beautiful young American movie actress named Peggy Whitton (Gabrieal Griego). The writers hurl verbal brickbats at each other until the actress, in an effort to cool passions that are already on the boil, suggests that the two men sit down and formally debate their differences on the subject of poverty; and, in a tipsy moment that she soon regrets, Peggy promises to sleep with the winner.
Neil Shah brings charm and eloquence and admirable gravitas to the role of Victor Mehta; Brendan Bradley gives an incendiary performance as Stephen Andrews; and Gabrieal Griego is good the idealistic but naïve Peggy Whitton, who soon realizes that she’s hopelessly out of her intellectual depth.
Dramatist David Hare’s gimmick in A Map of the World is to make the play a play-within-a-play. He wants the audience to think that they are watching the events unfold as they happen and then, to heighten the show’s dramatic intensity, Hare pulls back to reveal that the preceding scenes are part of a motion-picture dramatization of a volatile 1978 conference in Bombay, India, which ended tragically.
Robin Dorff is quite sympathetic as Angelis, a fish-out-of-water American action-film director forced to make a message movie; and Holden Hansen is likewise persuasive as Martinson, the hard-pressed Australian director of the conference who is desperately trying to improvise a compromise, so the show can go on without delegates throwing public temper tantrums or walking out during Mehta’s keynote speech. P.J. Eatman is appropriately oily as the demagogic M’Bengue, who is outraged that the foreign aid that Senegal receives comes with strings attached; but Chaunesti Lyon needs to put more grit into her portrayal of journalist Elaine Le Fanu. Katie Anderson, Whitney Boreiko, Juanita Frederick, and Greg Paul all play multiple roles at the conference or during the film shoot and play them with distinction.
Burning Coal guest director Roger Smart stages A Map of the World with style and wit and imagination. He keeps the ideological harangues from growing too tedious, and he helps the actors achieve three-dimensional portraits of a host of complicated characters.
Scenic designer Chris Bernier does a nice job of creating colorful set pieces that can be whisked onstage and off without derailing the dramatic momentum, lighting designer Chris Popowich keeps the spotlight exactly where it should be, and costume designer Vanessa Streeter dresses the cast in an impressive array of outfits that accent important aspects of the character.
Burning Coal Theatre Company, which likes to raise the political consciousness of Triangle theatergoers every bit as much as it likes to entertain them, scores another hit with its spirited staging of A Map of the World. Don’t miss it.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents A Map of the World Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 15-18 and 22-25, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb 19 and 26, at 2 p.m. in Seby B. Jones Auditorium, St. Augustine’s College, 1315 Oakwood Ave., Raleigh, North Carolina. $16 ($14 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except $10 Wednesdays. 919/834-4001 or http://www.burningcoal.org/Tickets%20for%20MAP.htm [inactive 8/07]. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/.