Just because someone says it doesn’t make it true. What exactly are truth and reality? Both are subjective and depend on one’s perspective. In the news, there are often many sides to a story. These days in the United States, where business reigns, news must sell, whether it is on paper or online. Books must be highly riveting in order to fly off the shelves of the local bookstore (or into your e-reader). Compelling stories are picked up by Hollywood and made into films. Of course, movies need to appeal to a lot of people so that they can be profitable – and that usually means spicing up the script.
This month Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Fin Kennedy’s Broken Stones, with a talented cast directed by Seth Rozin. It’s a play that weaves politics, history and myth into a profound theatrical experience. Kennedy explores the elusive meaning of truth and reality in print, film and theatre, based on an incident that happened on April 9, 2003 — the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The United States of America was at war with Iraq because it had accused its leader of harboring weapons of mass destruction. At the time, it was believed that Iraq had the weapons, and a link to the 9/11 attacks in New York City had been hinted at. Saddam Hussein had to be ousted based on these “truths.”
The play begins with one Marine’s report about the looting. This yarn is lavishly embellished, and propels the action forward in what at times appears to be a direct and true unfolding of Alejandro Ramirez’ report. At other instances, the narrative becomes corrupted or blown out of proportion in order to fit the subsequent film or theatrical representation. It becomes difficult to decipher what is real and what is not. Is this about what happened on April 9, 2003, is it a romanticized version, or is it “fake news”? And by the way, what really happened to the antiquities? One can find this out today (nearly 15 years later) by using Google, but at the time, the story was subjected to massive half-truths and cover-ups.
In Broken Stones, there are various venues that are employed to blur fact and fiction: a hotel, war zone in Baghdad, the National Museum of Iraq, a movie studio, a movie soundstage and a stage for a play. The set, designed by Nick Embree, utilizes movable walls and sparse furniture to recreate these locations. The lighting and sound design, by Peter Whinnery and Larry Fowler respectively, work in tandem with Embree’s set and Natalia de la Torre’s costume design. The costumes are extremely important since most of the actors play multiple characters and the costumes help to distinguish them. For example, Najla Said as Aaliyah, the “real” employee of the museum (from Ramirez’s story) wears very neutral (brown, black, gray) colored and plain clothing, including a dark headscarf. In the subsequent movie version, she is played by actress Nazli Sarpkaya, as a younger and more glamorous woman, who wears a long red gown with a diamond studded belt and a glittery head covering.
Adding to the well-appointed and effective production design, Rozin’s tight ensemble of eight actors demonstrate flexibility and range in their interpretations of various characters, including different accents and rapid costume changes. These characters represent their incarnations as the original narrative is tampered with. Rand Guerrero is convincing as both the “real” character, Ramirez, and his fictionalized hero, Romano, but his acting in the second act is particularly secure. Said performed the pivotal character of Aaliyah, among others. I found her depiction culturally sensitive, and Aaliyah appropriately comes across as reserved but confident and intelligent. Steven Wright portrays the phony, egotistical director Garrett with aplomb. His scene with Romano on the movie set is powerful and honest as his character finally shows his true self. As the Writer, Charlotte Northeast also transforms throughout the play, sporting different accents, mannerisms and personalities.
Broken Stones is a complex work with many messages and layers. The pursuit and distortion of truth, the historical and current political situations, the importance of antiquities and heroes in national identity, the workings of the Hollywood film industry, and the role of playwright and actor are all exposed in Broken Stones. Because of this intricacy, Broken Stones may require a second viewing or some research to understand it all. Fortunately, there are some post-show discussions and coffee conversations to help comprehend its meanings and relate it to current events. In addition, on November 12 InterAct will present an open captioned performance and on November 17 a Spanish captioned performance.
Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Broken Stones plays through November 19, 2017 at InterAct Theatre Company, performing at the Proscenium Theatre at The Drake — 302 South Hicks Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 568-8079, or purchase them online.