Wednesday, September 16, 2009



By Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. Dir. Jessica Blank. New York Theatre Workshop. (CLOSED)

This docu-theater look at the lives of Iraqi exiles in Jordan, from the creators of The Exonerated, gets a solid bloc of warm support from critics sobered and impressed by its simple, bracingly intimate presentation of lives shattered by the U.S.-led war on Iraq. On the other hand, a clutch of dissenters seems unmoved or even affronted by what they see as the play's lack of balance, a rather odd expectation for interviews with refugees from a chaotic and bloody warzone. In particuar, Talkin' Broadway's Matthew Murray, after dubbing an imam's testimony of his time at Abu Ghraib "uncomfortably pat," delivers the weirdly backhanded compliment that despite the gravitas of the performers and the harrowing tales they have to tell, the show still seems "more like theatre than documentary." And that's bad how?

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) Smart and sobering...Aftermath, being a live play, doesn’t allow you the distance afforded by reading a magazine or watching a screen, when you can turn the page or change the channel. The exiles whose tales of displacement are related here may be embodied by actors, but you often feel that it’s the people they are portraying who are demanding the courtesy of your attention. How can you turn away? This aura of fraught intimacy has been achieved with subtle ingenuity by Mr. Jensen and Ms. Blank.

The Daily News A
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Issue-oriented docudramas culled from interviews with real people always run the risk of being more preachy than provocative, more earnest than eye-opening. There's even something about the title Aftermath suggesting that it's theater that's supposed to be good for you. But such reservations fade minutes into this graceful and gripping work...The stories unfold bit-by-bit over 80 minutes and are haunting and harrowing, but there's also room for humor. The staging, by Blank, is fluid; the performances excellent across the board.

Variety A
(Marilyn Stasio) A superbly staged and beautifully acted testimonial to the innocent victims of an ugly war. In putting a human face on the thousands of displaced civilians who lost their homes, their families and their history in a catastrophe not of their making, this powerful piece of agitprop theater challenges us all. The minimalist set (pairs of chairs on platform tiers) and laser-point lighting (shafts of light piercing the metaphorical darkness) follow the textbook rules for staging a documentary theater piece. Which basically boils down to taking the audience hostage. The rest is all acting -- and brilliant acting it is, to hold us mesmerized through a series of monologues in which eight refugees recount the circumstances that uprooted them from their homeland...Not having a dramatic scene structure, the material is paced out in beats that deepen in tone and escalate in emotional intensity as the piece shifts incrementally from life under Saddam Hussein to life under American occupation.

Associated Press A
(Michael Kuchwara) A docudrama of the highest order, one that personalizes and puts into perspective the staggering human cost of the last six years in Iraq. In a brisk 85 minutes, Blank and Jensen present a scrapbook of lives interrupted and forever changed...An impressive addition to journalism as theater.

That Sounds Cool A
(Aaron Riccio) Yes, the cast of Blank and Jensen's latest work...are still actors. But in perfectly speaking the exact words of Iraqi refugees in Jordan (well, 90% of their words), they are something more, too: they are mediums...While the show has obviously been edited--Aftermath pieces together moments from six different interviews--it's not blatantly agenda-driven, or accusation-based...At times, Blank's direction is a little too much...However, when it comes to evoking those words, Blank's a genius--and the fact that she collaborated on the script clearly helps her find a foothold...Aftermath is a play filled with good theatrical choices, which is sort of ironic, as it depicts the slew of poor upon poorer choices that have been made in Iraq. It's the gold standard of political theater, and a shining exemplar of the documentary sub-genre, and it's absolutely must-see. No more "afters"; go now.

New Yorker A-
Plays about Iraq are no longer the fashion (the theatre, like the country, is distractible), so the arrival of a sturdy, heartfelt one is grimly welcome...The portraits are warm and disarming, inflected with humor as well as horror. Ultimately, the piece is too credulous to offer an original outlook, but the bleakly familiar picture it creates is worth the repeat viewing.

Backstage A-
(Erik Haagensen) Simple isn't easy, but playwrights Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank prove just how powerful it can be in their disquieting, moving, intensely human docudrama "Aftermath." Nine actors play eight refugees from the Iraq war and their translator. The text, taken from their own words, recounts the terrible toll war and its consequences have taken on them and their loved ones. It all makes for riveting and important theater...Blank's invisible direction knows just when to linger and when to accelerate, and her simple staging on the black-box set filled with nothing but an assortment of living-room chairs seems inevitable....If I had any reservation, it would only be that in a show like this, which feels as if it wants to use this group of characters as a composite portrait of a society, there is no gay or lesbian character.

New York Post B+
(Frank Scheck) While the subject matter threatens to be grueling, the playwrights are canny enough to infuse the evening with humor, as when the dermatologist boasts about his ability to "diagnose over the phone." But the tragic tales are front and center, from the imam's description of being tortured at Abu Ghraib to the mother's account of losing most of her family. If this play doesn't quite pack the punch of its predecessor [Exonerate], it's because the stories lack neat resolutions. But Aftermath nonetheless emerges as a valuable addition to the growing list of notable Iraq-themed dramas.

Time Out NY B+
(Adam Feldman) Somber...The personal narratives told here are harrowing, and Blank stages them with appropriate gravity. The acting is strong—I especially admired Omar Koury and Rasha Zamamiri as a pair of cooks, and Amir Arison as a dermatologist—and the subject matter is important. Just 85 minutes long, the production often passes slowly, like a funeral procession; it doesn’t grab the audience as viscerally as Blank and Jensen’s long-running The Exonerated did...“Enjoy!” said the usher as she handed me the program, but this is not an enjoyable piece: It aims to make you uncomfortable, casting hard light on a problem that many would rather imagine was solved, without contemplating the remainders.

Village Voice B+
(Alexis Soloski) The play moves deftly from one narrative to another...Occasionally, the show gives off a somewhat sanctimonious tone, but that doesn't render Blank and Jensen's work any less important or necessary.

Theatermania B+
(Dan Balcazo) The impact that the American invasion of Iraq had on a handful of everyday Iraqi citizens is brought vividly to life in Aftermath, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's new documentary theater piece...The piece occasionally struggles with the limitations inherent in the duo's project, but ultimately presents a compelling and at times disconcerting look at their subjects' experiences...One of the strongest elements of Aftermath is the way that it treats the problem of translation. Several of the characters comment upon the questionable accuracy that they've witnessed from some translators, and at one point, Yassar -- who speaks some English -- angrily rebukes Shahid for mistranslating one of his comments. Such moments underscore the way the stories we hear are not just filtered through Blank and Jensen's playwriting sensibilities, but also how the authors are themselves reliant on someone else to interpret the words of the interview subjects...A wider range of perspectives presented and/or a more diverse geographic sampling (including, for example, Iraqis in the U.S., Europe, etc.) may have benefited the piece. B
(Loren Noveck) On the most basic level—as an act of witness, a way to record the testimonies of people whose stories might not otherwise be heard—the play serves an important function, one as much journalistic as artistic. To that end, the playwrights wisely resisted the temptation to select a perfectly representative array of types as their characters, or to pick solely immediately emotionally engaging figures...And the simple process of storytelling is helped by the clean, minimalist production (the set is a row of assorted chairs; most of the visual detail comes in the costumes) and the bracingly unsentimental acting work by the entire ensemble...After a settling-in period with the characters at the start of the play that felt almost leisurely, the rush through to the end, combined with the changing role of the translator, felt like the piece was pushing me away from the characters, at a crucial point. Of course, the desire to capture as much material as possible, to tell as many stories as one can, is an imperative—but I think the piece might have had more of an impact with fewer stories experienced and explored in more detail.

Talkin' Broadway B-
(Matthew Murray) Pulls so few punches that one is surprised it didn’t appear during the Bush administration. This may be a brutal and unforgiving probe of displaced souls desperately searching for remnants of themselves away from their homes, but its overall imbalance makes it of minimal use as either a historical or dramatic representation of this difficult subject...There is an undeniable pull to these recollections. But they’re so impeccably chosen, so perfectly interlocking to further the unveiling of America’s myopic destructiveness, that they’re rather less believable than the simply told reminiscences of The Exonerated. They’re more consistently acted, by a company of actors whose Middle-Eastern heritage lends an immediate gravitas to their characters’ plaints, but it’s not enough to prevent the whole show from seeming more like theatre than documentary...Not that Blank, who also directs with a darkly minimalist memory-theatre flair, and Jensen are obliged to be even-handed. But doing so might grant them even more power to drive their message home in a vehicle that resembles something other than a rant.

CurtainUp C+
(Paulanne Simmons) Blank (who also directs) and Jensen go to great lengths to give each of their characters a personal story and they are quite successful...However, when the various stories of these everyday people turn to their war experiences, they begin to exhibit a remarkable similarity...Aftermath is well written and at times brilliantly acted. But, it is a contrived work in that it trades shamelessly on the natural empathy and guilt privileged Americans tend to feel when confronted with the hardships they have caused, or even the horrible conditions they have not caused but that are nonetheless endured by less fortunate people...We don't need Blank or Jensen or any of the people they interviewed to tell us war is hell. It's pretty obvious the war in Iraq was initiated by the United States under the last regime and that regrettable mistakes were made. The question is what does Aftermath contribute to the plethora of words written about this terrible situation and our understanding of how we got into it—and how we can get out?

On Off Broadway C
(Matt Windman) What exactly is documentary theater? Is it drama, or journalism, or both, or neither? With the exception of "The Laramie Project," I really, really dislike the genre...While Blank and Jensen should be commended for trying to spread public awareness, the stories in "Aftermath" are far more compelling on the page rather than onstage. Blank, who also directs, has the cast do little more than sit down for 90 minutes and politely take turns addressing the audience. It is an extremely modest and restrained staging with no scenery besides a row of chairs. The excellent cast deserves credit for injecting personality and even humor to some very emotionally demanding material. But if there is a play to be made from the stories of the Iraqi civilians, it has yet to arrive.

The New York Times A 13; The Daily News A 13; Variety A 13; AP A 13; That Sounds Cool A 13; NYer A- 12; Backstage A- 12; New York Post B+ 11; TONY B+ 11; VV B+ 11; Theatermania B+ 11; B 10; Talkin' Broadway B- 9; CurtainUp C+ 8; On Off Broadway C 7; TOTAL: 167/15=11.13 (B+)

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