Theatre Review: Questioning Reality: Broken Stones stupefies at InterAct
A lot of people in my business – that is, whatever the amoeba that journalism has become – do not take too kindly to any assessment of the content they provide that can be interpreted as “fake news.”
They take it personally. And that’s a shame. Because the notion that the stories being told may have been embellished or were inaccurate existed long before the boob in the White House first uttered those words, or used up nine of his 140 characters to type them.
So, it wouldn’t surprise me if some stuffed-shirted journos don’t take kindly to the script of Broken Stones, the meta-theatrical play that made it’s world debut when it opened last week to kick off the 30th anniversary season of InterAct Theatre Company.
But Fin Kennedy, a Brit with wit and a writer’s command of narrative so strong that he’s able to bend it and twist it in so many different directions that he leaves you wondering what is reality and what isn’t, doesn’t care if it offends some storytellers. He doesn’t care if the truth hurts.
Frankly, his play isn’t all that interested in the truth at all – but rather the study of how truth is perceived, and how truth can be so diverse to so many different people.
It’s a fascinating study in the art of storytelling. Because, let’s be honest, every person who sits behind a keyboard and types words for others to read for a living is a storyteller, whether they want to hide behind the ever-flimsy visage of traditional reporting or not.
Which is why, you should do whatever you can to get yourself to InterAct to see this production.
That’s not a promise that you will love it. It’s not a promise that you will even understand what the heck is going on at some points – but that’s the beauty of the piece. It’s a total mind-bender and it leaves the audience with varying interpretations about what the story was about and what actually just happened.
Kind of like we are forced to do with every bit of news we ingest every day through a variety of mediums. The reality is in our laps – not that of those who tell the tales.
The crux of Kennedy’s story that is tangible and consented to by all, is that marine reservist Alejandro Ramirez (Rand Guerrero) meets with an ambitious ghost writer (Charlotte Northeast) about the potential of a memoir about his first-hand investigation into the April 9, 2003 looting of the Baghdad Museum of Antiquities, immediately following the demise of tyrannical ruler Saddam Hussein.
The writer suggests that all true stories need a little fiction just like all fiction needs a little dose of truth, and says that she tries to craft her stories in the vein of the Epic of Gilgamesh (go ahead, look it up on Wikipedia. I’ll wait…)
Interestingly enough, Gilgamesh, considered by many scholars to be the earliest work of literature, written on tablets by ancient Mesopotamians, becomes a central character in Kennedy’s story, as the physical characters believe that portions of the tablets with which that poem was written, as well as other valuable antiquities were stolen and sold to wealthy collectors and the money may have been used to fund the creation of ISIS.
Ramirez, who is based on Matthew Bagdanos, the real-life marine who wrote a book about his efforts to recover lost artifacts stolen in that looting, wants to tell the story truthfully (Although, truth be told, those Gilgamesh tablets were not pilfered by looters on that Spring day in 2003.) But the Writer sees it differently, and constantly re-imagines Ramirez’ interactions with other marines, military leaders and the staff of the museum who may or may not have been complicit with the missing antiquities.
These characters are played deftly by supporting actors Peter Bisgaier, Daniel Barland, Najla Said, Nazli Sarpkaya and Steven Wright (more on them in a minute).
Ramirez, who is now known as Alessandro Romano – because the Writer thinks Italian-Americans sell better in books and movies – has completed his book by the end of act one, and act two begins with the book being turned into a movie before taking a wild ride through the whims of the Writer, until it brings us to a climax that is a trippy homage to Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and a denouement that is certain to spark debate on what you just spent two hours watching.
Seth Rozin’s direction is on point as it moves at breakneck speed and still assures that you will shake previously held beliefs about reality.
Northeast impresses with her performance as the Writer, changing her personality and dialect throughout the show, indicating that she is in actuality, an amalgam of several different writers who take poetic license with the story each time they get their hands on it.
Her impetuous and snarky tone at the beginning delights, while her blunt and piquant tone in the penultimate scene of the show is sobering and powerful in the sense that she epitomizes the bitter and hardened writers who suffer most from the credibility assault many scribes are experiencing today without an ability to rebuff it.
Guerrero plays confusion well, but there were times I wasn’t convinced it was his character and thought it could be the actor himself who wasn’t quite sure what he was experiencing. His occasional dialogue fumbles and his continued flip-flop from Brooklyn accent to his California bland-speak is something that would make Kevin Costner proud.
The supporting cast of quality character actors kept me wanting to see more of them. Barland and Said stood out for me. Barland bouncing from Iraqi-American marine interpreter to the stereotypical flamboyant gay Hollywood showrunner to the equally stereotypical but incredibly hysterical over-acting leading man is a scene-stealer.
Said was tremendously convincing whether she was the front desk employee of a hotel, the intensely focused Iraqi museum archivist Aaliyah, the dim-witted Hollywood hair and makeup artist or the British actor charged with understanding the role of Aaliyah, her range and talent was gripping and appreciated.
Guzman is also brilliant with his convincing portrayals and Bisgaier and Sarpkaya are quite entertaining in their smaller roles.
Wright, a veteran Philadelphia actor, had his positive moments, but disappointed a few times with what seemed to be a lapse or lack of command of his dialogue.
Nick Embree’s set stood out to me for it’s flexibility and it’s ability to morph with rotating walls to address the unique sharp turns in the script.
Natalia De La Torre’s costumes were subtly smart – with minor, yet noticeable changes as characters jumped from one writer’s version to the next while Peter Whinnery’s use of the house lights as well as harsh blackouts combined with Larry D. Fowler, Jr.’s booming sound design only added to the production.
In conclusion, Kennedy’s writing and Rozin’s direction want the audience to ask themselves if just because they believe a story, does it make it true?
Be prepared to have your mind manipulated and to walk out of the theatre confused, destabilized, and more willing than ever to question what you read or hear.
And if you do, then Broken Stones accomplished its intention.
Directed by Seth Rozin
Presented by InterAct Theatre Company at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake
302, S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia, PA
Running Tuesdays through Sundays through Nov. 19
For tickets, call 215-568-8079 or visit InteractTheatre.org