The smoking Nissan Pathfinder in Times Square last week is an all-too-obvious reminder of the rage against us out there, like the rage against every empire in history. Were we benign yet powerful (and we are certainly not the former), we'd still be confronted with the threat of violence from extremists with a lesser grip on the reins of power. That's just world history. It's also the fuel for Shakespeare's history plays, from King John and King Lear to King Henry V; from Coreolanus to Macbeth: the exigencies and consequences of ambition.
Precisely those exigencies and those consequences show up in a new translation (by Alistair Beaton) of Max Frisch's The Arsonists, well into its run at the Odyssey Theatre; and a new play, Shaheed, written and performed by Anna Khaja about "the dream and death" of Pakistan's slain leader, Benazir Bhutto. Shaheed opened over the weekend at the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre near the Larchmont district. Shaheed is the kind of political biography that will garner attention because it's so topical. (In fact, it will be performed in the New York International Fringe Festival this fall.) Pakistan is obviously among the cadre of Middle Eastern nations that house al Qaeda and related militias, dedicated in principle to sending bomb-laden Nissan Pathfinders into Times Square.
That alone should be a source of curiosity for us. Furthermore, on April 15, the United Nations released a report condemning the government of former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for willfully failing to provide security for Prime Minister Bhutto (an advocate for democracy and women's rights) during a 2007 rally in Rawalpindi, where she was killed by a gunman and suicide bomber. (The report noted that the government provided an entirely different, higher level of security for rallies at which Musharraf's supporters headlined.)
The cleverness of Khaja's concept lies in her reluctance to portray Bhutto throughout — the kind of hot-dogging temptation that would have seduced a lesser playwriting talent. This is all the more notable because Khaja the performer bears a striking physical resemblance to the popular leader. Bhutto does show up in Khaja's gallery of eight characters but not until play's end. Up to that point, we meet women and men, all portrayed by Khaja, who have some connection to Bhutto. One of them is Bhutto's niece, journalist Fatima Bhutto, who seethes with resentment that her aunt is a pawn of the United States, a corrupt fashion- and celebrity-obsessed pop star and poster child for "democracy," and whose return to Pakistan — after a long exile during the 2000s — will merely lend legitimacy to the corruption and despotism of President Musharraf. This all could have something to do with U.S. air bases in Pakistan, but let's not get overly conspiratorial.
Had Khaja played Bhutto throughout, we would have gotten one woman's view of history from her words and gestures and — if we were lucky — perhaps some hidden insights lurking between and behind her words. What we have instead is a far richer portrait not only of a political superstar but of the world she inhabits — a world intrinsically related to our own security and destiny.
One of the evening's biggest laughs comes from Khaja's interpretation of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, informing Bhutto that the United States does not meddle in other nations' affairs. And she seems to mean it. This is all part of Rice's strategy to advise Bhutto of her role: to return to her homeland after years of exile, to win the election and to work with Musharraf. The aim is clearly to stem a brewing, internal revolt against Musharraf, and the U.S. interests he represents.
Add to the docket Cuseem, a Boston University professor and one-time supporter of Bhutto, who admits that, after being hung upside down for a few days in a Pakistani prison cell, he told the authorities whatever they wanted to hear. His soliloquy is a plea for forgiveness, performed by Khaja without a trace of melodrama — rather, with a kind of wry, world-weary complacency masking the agony of conscience he must now take to his grave.
Each of Khaja's characters has similar contradictions, layered into her performances with taste and intelligence. We meet a Bhutto-adoring rehri (taxi) driver who, for financial reasons, consigned his 13-year-old daughter to be a ward of the local cleric. Then we meet that daughter, who tells of her involvement in a holy escapade in which a prostitute and a brothel owner are brutalized, and of the need to cleanse Pakistan, with bombs if necessary.
And so it goes, linkages into a universe that grows increasingly surreal with more information. Bhutto's appearance is a slight letdown. Though she says less than in an earlier reading of the play, her words — carved into a speech of self-justification — are largely irrelevant because she's such a political creature. In this play, she's far more interesting as a symbol, and a silent one, than as a character dealing with father issues. Credit director Heather de Michele for the evening's abundant wisdom. Maureen Weiss' set resembles a three-part wooden stable gate that folds open and closes for the various locales — accentuated by Sam Saldivar's projections. (In the interests of full disclosure, Shaheed's producer, Luis Reyes, a former intern at L.A. Weekly, is an occasional contributor of theater reviews, and has volunteered with the L.A. Weekly Theater Awards over the years.)
Swiss scholar Max Frisch first wrote The Arsonists (also known as The Firebugs) as a radio play in 1953, and it was developed into a stage play in 1958. Like Ionesco's Rhinoceros (written one year later), it's a cautionary tale about the complacency and blindness of well-meaning folk when the Nazis begin to take over. (Hitler was elected through a democratic process — a system he dismantled once he owned it.)
In the play, there have been a series of house burnings by arsonists, one of whom is named Schmitz (John Achorn) and who, purporting to be homeless, shows up at banker Biedermann's house. For reasons best described as liberal guilt, and despite the skepticism of his jittery wife (Beth Hogan), Biedermann (Norman Weisser) allows Schmitz domicile in his attic. When Schmitz's partner in crime, Eisenring (Ron Bottitta), shows up hauling canisters of petrol and detonators, it's both sinister and candid — the point being the refusal of the gentle-hearted to see what's clearly in front of their own eyes.
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Ron Sossi's staging for the Odyssey Theatre's Koan Ensemble is a smart affair, with fine lead performances, a chorus of firefighters and Birgitte Moos' set of identical, suspended dollhouses. The intended point is that we refuse to see fires — for that matter those set by Enron or British Petroleum — until it's too late.
The plight of such abstract plays is how their meaning can be inverted with contemporary events, beyond the control of theater producers. When Sossi chose to stage this play, that Nissan Pathfinder hadn't found a path to Times Square. And though we may not have seen that one coming, either (a fireball was prevented only by an alert street vendor and the ineptitude of the perpetrators), the stage image of those guys hauling in their gasoline cans and detonators while Biedermann and his wife make excuses for them contorts the play into the kind of argument Dick Cheney would have approved of: Remain vigilant, be afraid, trust nobody and let's adjust the Constitution for these newly dangerous times. I suspect that Sossi staged the play to warn us of the fires set by the Cheneys of the world, and a bomber from Pakistan has turned that point upside-down.
SHAHEED | Written and performed by ANNA KHAJA | STEPHANIE FEURY STUDIO THEATRE, 5636 Melrose Ave., L.A. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through May 22 | (323) 463-7378
THE ARSONISTS | By MAX FRISCH | PRESENTED BY KOAN ENSEMBLE AT THE ODYSSEY THEATRE, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through May 23 | (310) 477-2055