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Distillery Theatre Company’s “Playground” Casting Gimmick Pays Diminishing Dramatic Dividends as the Play Progresses

Distillery Theatre Company’s world-premiere production of Playground, Appalachian State University senior Jonathan Fitts’ fact-based play about a 10-year-old Yemeni girl’s forced marriage to — and subsequent divorce from — a man three times her age, employs an unusual casting gimmick. The children are played by adults, and the adults are played by children.

Unfortunately, this stunt-casting gambit pays diminishing dramatic dividends as the play progresses. For example, Triangle theater veteran Page Purgar, who plays the rebellious child bride Nujood Ali, who ran away from her abusive husband after two months of marriage, strikes a far more formidable figure than 14-year-old Ted Waechter, who portrays Nujood’s husband, Muhammad, who rapes her and allows his parents to beat her in a series horrifying scenes depicted abstractly (for example, playwright Jonathan Fitts substitutes a brutal dodgeball game for Muhammad’s monstrous rape of Nujood).

When Purgar as Nujood stands up to her Daddy (15-year-old Dylan Goodman) and especially her miniscule Mother (10-year-old Annabel Bloom), it is impossible to imagine them intimidating Nujood, a child from a suburb of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, and Nujood acquiescing to an arranged marriage, even if it is a tribal custom and even if it is legal under Sharia, or Islamic law, which governs all aspects of Muslim life, including marriage, divorce, and child custody in Yemen.

Adult actor Jeff Aguiar, who plays An Old Friend of Nujood’s family, is much more menacing than Muhammad as he tries to browbeat Nujood into accepting her arranged marriage and staying in it, no matter how abusive her husband and his family are to her. Adult actress Jenny Wales adds a passionate portrait as crusading feminist lawyer and human rights specialist Shada Nasser, who won Nujood a divorce in court before her 11th birthday.

Puppet designer Sam Corey also deserves kudos, especially for his design of judge Mohammed al-għadha, a towering puppet operated by the Chorus, which consists of 15-year-old Leo Brody and 13-year-old Anna Grey Voelker. And 14-year-old Courtney Pisano is a spectral, but not always audible figure as brutalized child bride Ra’diah, who encourages Nujood not to accept her fate.

Overall, the child actors have neither the diction nor the projection necessary to make their characterizations convincing. Moreover, by staging the scenes as a series of playground games, whose names are scribbled in chalk on the stage or other surfaces, director Kylie McCormick has muddied the dramatic waters to the point that it is hard to tell what is happening in several scenes, especially toward the end of the play. It is one thing to depict dramatic events in the abstract, and to put an absurdist spin on them. But it is quite another thing to obscure what’s happening so completely that the audience cannot follow.

By casting children as adults and vice versa, and by transforming this ripped-from-the-headlines play into an absurdist drama, playwright Jonathan Fitts and director Kylie McCormick have avoided offensive Muslim stereotypes; but, in the process, they have softened the blow that Playground could deliver against Islamic extremists who think that women are second-class citizens (at best) and that selling 10-year-old girls into “marriages” indistinguishable from slavery, in exchange for hefty dowries, is a tribal custom that is worth preserving, in any enlightened 21st century society.

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 6th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 2 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/experimental-take-on-sharia-law-in-the-distillerys-playground/Content?oid=1711895. (To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 30th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2010/09/playground-chronicles-a-10-year-old-yemeni-girls-struggle-to-get-a-divorce-from-a-man-three-times-her-age/.)

EDITOR’S NOTE: To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.

The Distillery Theatre Company presents PLAYGROUND at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7-9 and 2 p.m. Oct. 10 in Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.

TICKETS: $10, except $5 Education Rush Tickets for students and teachers with ID (sold 5 minutes before each show).

BOX OFFICE: 919/279-3903 or info@distillerytheatre.org.

SHOW/PRESENTER: http://www.distillerytheatre.org/.

SEASON: http://www.distillerytheatre.org/currentseason.html.

BLOG: http://playgrounddrama.blogspot.com/.

VENUE/DIRECTIONS: http://www.burningcoal.org/third/murphey.html.

OTHER LINKS:

Wedlocked” (CNN documentary about Nujood Ali): http://edition.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/international/2009/08/28/wus.wedlock.bk.a.cnn.html (part 1) and http://edition.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/international/2009/08/28/wus.wedlock.bk.b.cnn.html (part 2).

Kylie McCormick: http://www.kyliemccormick.com/ (official website).

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.

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