Sometimes it takes a little tap on your noggin to get the point across, and sometimes it takes a blow from a sledge hammer.
The sledge hammer gets a total workout in "Back of the Throat," the over-the-top horror show running at Next Act’s Third Ward theater.
As this country continues to debate the issues of racial profiling, the fight against terrorism and the Patriot Act, along comes this play by Yussef El Guindi to put a sharp point on all of the endless dangerous possibilities when it comes to the business of defending our country against the threat of terrors.
The story takes place shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and concerns a young Arab-American, Khaled played by Christopher Tramantana. He is a citizen and is paid a visit by Bartlett (Jonathan Wainwright) and Carl (Andrew Voss), two investigators who show up at his door and begin an interview and search of his apartment.
Wainwright takes the lead in the interview while Voss prowls through the cluttered apartment which is filled with books and a single table in the middle of the room with a laptop atop it. Khaled is a writer.
You can feel the tension build as Khaled initially responds to this intrusion into his life with humor and disbelief. As the questions grow more pointed and the search turns up more stuff, including porn hidden under a bed, a book on guns and a manual for the oppressed, his attitude shifts to one of suspicion and then anger and finally fear.
Along the way, there are flashbacks into the circumstantial evidence that has brought the agents to his door. The marvelous Alexandra Bonesho plays a librarian who saw Khaled in the same library as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attack, his ex-girlfriend Beth, who describes some of his unaccounted for time, and stripper named Jean who saw Khaled in her club, gave him a lap dance and watched him disappear into a bathroom with the man identified as the mastermind.
None of this is evidence that would ever stand up in a court of law, but it is the kind of thing that weaves a web that has Khaled trapped.
One of the things that David Cecsarini, artistic director of Next Act, prides himself on is staging plays that are brave enough to look at the kind of troubling issues that are the stuff of serious and meaningful thought. On this one it would almost seem at first glance to be almost comedic with such broadly drawn characters to be almost stereotypical.
Yet it didn't take long before I felt deeply that the actions are a searing indictment of the dangers inherent in giving a government too much power to conduct a worthwhile activity, protecting America from terrorists. As the chills mount and the excess becomes excessive, I found myself developing incredibly sympathy for Khaled, probably more than he truly deserved. There was a contrasting revulsion at the tactics of the investigators, probably more than they deserved.
Director Edward Morgan was blessed with a wonderful cast and a spectacularly detailed and evocative set by Rick Rasmussen. This production team understood that in order to get an audience to face one of the crucial questions of our time the lines had to be clearly drawn. One way to do that is to make the characters so obvious that there can be no mistaking what each stands for.
Tramantana brings a wide range of talent to Khaled, starting out with great good humor and moving to his angry cry that he knows his rights and wants a lawyer. At the end, he is wracked with fear and disgust. The fear, which so often is clouded, is vivid and made me cringe.
Wainwright is always memorable and in this production has the wily and super-dangerous investigator down pat. He is sly and brutal and creates a threatening cloud that lasts throughout the play. His Bartlett has an almost perverse purity about his job.
It’s a pleasure to welcome Voss back to town after a year with Utah Shakespeare. His Carl is the muscle of the duo, The early non-permissioned search of drawers, desks, closets and bathrooms is a chilling thing to see and portends the unchecked horror to come.
Bonesho, as always, shines in her three roles, although the turn at the stripper came out as a piece of the play that could well have been cut. It’s not her fault, but rather a too-simple way to deliver another string in the web choking Khaled.
This play is not for the weak of heart, but it both challenges and illuminates one of the most troubling issues of our time.
"Back of the Throat" runs through Oct. 25 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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