Servicing Their Country
Photo by Ed KriegerSinan Ünel is an expat Turkish playwright who named his 1998 drama, Pera Palas, after Istanbul’s most distinguished hotel — where most of the play’s action occurs — a symbolic and luxurious edifice opened in 1891 to accommodate passengers from Paris arriving at the final stop of the Orient Express. The hotel’s guest list has included European royalty, Agatha Christie, Jackie O. and the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It’s rumored that the constitutional tenets of contemporary Turkey were drawn up in Room 101, where Atatürk secretly resided when his family was under surveillance by the Allied forces of World War I. The place is swirling with ghosts, as is Ünel’s play. Pera Palas is Ünel’s homage to Istanbul — a city with a pair of bridges connecting Europe to Asia. Those passages between West and East form the crux of Ünel’s epic, in the collisions of more than two dozen characters, spanning 75 years, and played here by an ensemble of 10, doubling and tripling roles. Additionally, the entire project — a joint venture of Antaeus Company and the Theater @ Boston Court — has two completely different casts that alternate.The play has three acts and follows three stories, each set decades apart. The first concerns an ideological disciple of Susan B. Anthony, an English suffragette named Evelyn Crawley (Jeanie Hackett) who, in the play’s opening, revisits the hotel in 1918 after an absence of several years. World War I rages, and the Ottoman Empire, with its sultan and sanctified bigamy, is in retreat. For emotional as well as anthropological reasons, Evelyn leaves the plush hotel confines for plush harem confines, to dwell among many women with a young Turk named Melek (Rebecca Mozo), who’s giddy with excitement over her pending arranged marriage. When a gently pompous British Embassy official (Mikael Salazar) warns Evelyn that, since the Allies are in the process of carving up the Ottoman Empire, it might behoove her to live somewhere more protected from the beastly natives, Evelyn responds with an indignant lecture on British arrogance, which is true but annoying, mainly because she uses the same defensive tone of doe-eyed rectitude later mastered by Tony Blair. She similarly lectures Melek that arranged marriages are fraught with peril, as though unarranged marriages aren’t — except that one can now get out of them, which is really the issue. By 1926, Melek has been beaten and isolated in a palace cell for being barren, while her beloved has moved on to another wife. Wedlock is the perfect word for Melek’s imprisonment.A story thread from 1952-1953 — a showcase moment for Atatürk’s new liberalized Republic — introduces us to a courtship between an American teacher tourist named Kathy (Angela Goethals) and the dashing young Turk, Orhan (Ramon de Ocampo), for whom she abandons her life in the United States. Bad move. The third installment lands us in 1994, a time when Islamic fundamentalism is again on the rise, and where a young expat Turkish photographer (Daniel Bess) returns home from America to introduce his parents — none other than Kathy and Orhan 30 years later (Melinda Peterson and Apollo Dukakis) — to his lover, Brian (Bill Brochtrup). Because Kathy is now convicted to live with Orhan’s debts, his infected boils and bad teeth, she’s glad to see her son return home; Peterson portrays her with a tenderly cheerful resignation. Dukakis’ aging Orhan has a wonderful double-act of feigning good cheer while studiously avoiding eye-contact with his gay son. In such details, Ünel captures the essence of an Eastern country that appears to embrace Western change while actually defying it. The melodramatic father-son confrontation that follows is almost beside the point, an overcompensation for the lack of character detail that would have made this good play a great one. For as a central player, Murat does little more than brood, until he finally unloads on his father. His lover, Brian, is a good-natured queen with an upset stomach. Beyond that, he’s barely tested, dramatically. Poor Melek is defined entirely by the men who surround her — her devotion or her victimization. Without them, she’s a shell, even though her plight is daunting. Evelyn reads to us from her eloquent diary and supplies plenty of heroic attitude. She’s a feminist, for certain, but who she is behind the barricade of her principles is anybody’s guess. And that really is the test of a stage character: a creation with a l:ife beyond the walls of the theater. Only Kathy and Orhan rise to that standard, largely because we actually see their collapse from youthful exuberance — and each has the benefit of being played by two actors.The play nonetheless contains a sweeping beauty that’s nicely painted by director Michael Michetti, and further enhanced by set designer Tom Buderwitz’s collage of images, including emblematic Blue Mosque tiles and the McDonald’s logo beneath minarets in the dawn. Furthermore, Ünel brings the three eras together on the stage simultaneously — defined largely by Ivy Y. Chou’s excellent costumes. Young Kathy and older Kathy occupy the same stage space, even with Evelyn for a moment — all oblivious to each other. The effect is literally haunting and not just schematic gimmickry. The same impact can be felt inside Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Mosque, where the ghost traces of medieval Christian iconography on the walls still loom in the presence of the Muslim symbols painted over them. Turkey is a land where cultures and religions and epochs all crash into each other. Even with its pedantic streaks, Ünel’s play gets to the heart of those implosions, and that’s no small accomplishment. The Spinoza/Nietzsche-spouting intern, Diana Sheridan (Beth Anne Garrison), in Jon Cellini’s new play, The Intern, aligns herself philosophically with Brits G.B. Shaw, Bertrand Russell and possibly Ünel’s Evelyn in believing that marriage is just a glorified birdcage, society’s biggest marketing ploy to secure the ruling clans’ lines of ascendancy. When Diana aggressively seduces Bud Rex (David Haydn Jones) — a California congressman who’s running for a U.S. Senate seat — neither of them is thinking of Bud’s wife, or of her reluctant place in this newfound ménage. Rather, Diana and Bud are unleashing their beasts within, while damning the torpedoes. One torpedo comes in the form of Bud’s campaign manager, Jerry Tondino (Jeff Kerr McGivney), a Mephistopheles who argues, predictably, that Bud’s infidelity is political folly. Bud tries politely to bow out of the torrid affair with as much chivalry as a good-hearted liberal democrat can muster, but Diana isn’t buying. Rather, being in her 20s, she keeps referring to destiny. Bud, however, knows exactly what his destiny will be if people ever learn about Diana’s panties strewn under his desk. Faster than you can say Fatal Attraction, Diana disappears — which is where Cellini’s morality play really begins. Cellini frames the mystery through the investigation of an FBI agent posing as a green journalist (Tara Orr). The fascination to this well-trod story comes largely from the rich acting chemistry in Stuart Rogers’ simple and straightforward production (which also has two casts) — realism unencumbered with too many props, or too much furniture. Rather, Jeff McLaughlin’s set of gray and black platforms suggests one of those M.C. Escher graphics, with staircases that seem to lead nowhere in particular, perfectly encompassing the play’s Shakespearean idea of vaulting ambition, and ascent-as-mirage.As the journalist, Orr has a sweet, dimpled smile and crosses her legs ever so strategically, mocking Bud’s obvious, erotic vulnerabilities. Garrison brings an appealing emotional intelligence to her siren’s body heat; Jones’ handsome, morally shredded congressman becomes such a dither of mixed emotions, he’s almost enough to make you vote Republican. Moira Squier turns in a beautifully dry turn as Bud’s ferociously principled secretary — a one-woman Greek chorus, watching her employer with stoic concern. Talk about familiarity breeding contempt.PERA PALAS | By SINAN ÜNEL | Presented by ANTAEUS COMPANY and THEATER @ BOSTON COURT, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Through August 28 | (626) 683-6883 or www.bostoncourttheatre.com. THE INTERN | By JON CELLINI | Presented by THEATER TRIBE, 5267 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood | Through August 27 | (866) 811-4111 or www.theatretribe.com.
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