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Palace of the End

With echoes of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, Canadian playwright Judith Thompson paints a richly textured portrait of a world through interrelated soliloquys. But where the Irish Friel gives his “purpose of life” ruminations a romantic tilt, Thompson surveys the guts and bile of human oppression. Her landscape is Iraq and her trio of characters starts with U.S. Army PFC Lynndie England (Kate Mines), whose photo image giving a “thumbs up” to the sexual humiliation of Muslim inmates at Abu Ghraib prison made her an object of international contempt. Through her confession, we see her pregnant and with dog tags, checking her name on Google and reading the hate mail in the blogosphere. In attempting to understand her, Thompson has her explain how being a woman in the military requires cold-hearted machismo just to survive, let alone fit in. The prisoner whom she had led around on a dog chain had just called her a dog, she explains, and this was her answer. As for the thumbs-up pose, it was “one second” of fulfilling a request — one second of infamy captured for eternity. Mines’ cavalier, quick-witted interpretation of the gal from West Virginia includes her singing, with knowing irony, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no/I’m in a terrible fix.” Next we meet Dr. David Kelly (Michael Katlin), the British weapons inspector almost crucified by Tony Blair for testifying that evidence for the invasion was “sexed up.” They didn’t need to kill him, he did it himself, and we catch him in the woods moments before his suicide. His agony was not for his testimony, but for his complicity in the invasion at the outset, which, unwittingly for him, brutally ended the lives of an Iraqi family he’d come to know and admire. The tragedy in Katlin’s portrayal is slightly mannered, and his dialect is off-center, yet the soliloquy remains engrossing. Anna Khaja’s Iraqi ghost Nehrjas (killed during the first U.S. invasion) closes the play — a testimony to the horrors of life under Saddam Hussein, of seeing her children tortured for information leading to the arrest of their officially loathed father — an intellectual and communist. In those days, the CIA was funding Hussein’s efforts to eradicate his enemies — if you recall the 1983 video of Donald Rumsfeld shaking Hussein’s hand. Nehrjas’ story is as grueling as it gets, delivered by Khaja with mournful, merciful restraint and a wry, twisted smile that contains everything you need to know about pointless suffering, wisdom and the dignity of endurance. In her play finely directed by Sara Botsford and C.B. Brown, Thompson defiantly scrapes to the marrow of opposing camps, offering a lament that is theological and tragic and contains a rare, eerie beauty. 49th Parallel and Open at the Top at the Noho Arts Center, 111336 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlwyd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru July 8.

—Steven Leigh Morris


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