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timeline blood and giftsBack in 2010, I caught the Tricycle Theater’s ambitious, staggering, and nearly eight hour production of The Great Game:  Afghanistan in Washington DC during its US tour.  Comprised of 12 mini-plays from a wide range of playwrights tackling the history of Afghanistan from its colonial British roots to its recent fraught history, it contained a contribution from American playwright Lee Blessing about the relationship between the CIA and the Afghan warlords in the early 1980s which ironically contributed to laying the groundwork for the Taliban’s rise to power in that county.  I later learned that Blessing’s contribution replaced the original piece that another American playwright wrote – J.T. Rogers had expanded his original vignette to a full-length play which premiered ahead of The Great Game.  And I’m sure, despite Rogers’ exceptional playwriting powers, the complex, conflicting perspectives in that unsettling episode of both US and Afghan history could not have been given its due in eight minutes, so I’m glad he wrote a real  two and a half hour play about the topic instead.  And I am so glad that Timeline Theatre Company, clearly becoming one of the most essential arts companies in Chicago, has given that play Blood and Gifts an exciting, suspenseful, magnificently acted and directed Chicago premiere.  It is the most vital theatrical experience  I’ve had this year  so far– rich, provocative, intellectually and emotionally fascinating, it will leave you gobsmacked in the middle of Lakeview, wishing the play continued on for another two and a half hours .

In a series of fast-paced, tightly-controlled scenes, Rogers hurtles the audience through the period 1981-1991 in which the US, together with Great Britain and Pakistan, quietly funded and armed the Afghan tribal warlords as they struggled against the forced occupation of their country by the Soviet Union, and their eventual ascent into power, bringing with them the religion-based form of government that led to Taliban rule, the influence of Osama Bin Laden, and the US conflict post 9/11.  Rogers fascinatingly renders the conflicting, ever-changing interests and perspectives of the various players: from US naiveté in Middle East tribal politics and cultural considerations to Pakistan’s manipulative defense of its security interests to Britain’s inability to understand its post-colonial role in a region it previously exercised absolute rule on.  Then there’s the Soviet Union’s bumbling yet hubris-filled occupation of a sovereign country and the Afghans’ nationalistic yet at the same time self-interested and loyalty-shifting fervor.  It is heady, dizzying stuff, even for political buffs, but because Rogers is such a talented writer and so immersed in the events of the period, he makes all these power plays and governmental chess games rivetingly easy to follow.  Rogers’ dialogue is economical but blistering, his scenes to the point but packed with emotional drama and intellectual provocations.  I’ve always said on this blog that ultimately a play’s merit boils down to the writing, and man this is clearly some of the best writing I’ve seen in years.

Nick Bowling, a director I admire for his lack of showiness and melodrama and firm grasp of dramatic arcs, gives Blood and Gifts a fluid, enveloping production.  Scenes are played out all over the Timeline black box – in different parts of a catwalk that encircles the theater, as well as on a runaway-style performance area. Mike Tutaj’s expectedly impressive projection design powerfully complements Bowling’s direction, giving a definitive sense and place to the show.  The rest of Bowling’s designers also do top-of-their-game work: from Collette Pollard’s sprawling yet thoughtfully-curated set design to Jesse Klug’s unfussy but effective lighting design to Mikhail Fiksel’s and Habiddulah Warsak’s unobtrusive yet culturally-distinctive original music.

The play is great, but the acting in this production propels it to even more greatness. There is no weak link in the 14 person ensemble cast, showcasing some of the city’s best actors.  The events are seen through the eyes of the US CIA station chief James Warnock, played to inscrutable perfection, very similar to Jessica Chastain’s Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, by the peerless Timothy Edward Kane. But unlike Chastain in the film, Kane gives Warnock a well-delineated emotional life: despite his all-encompassing dedication to US interest in the region, he is also a father and husband struggling to do what’s right for his family in light of what his country has asked him to do. Raymond Fox as the British intelligence chief Simon Craig is blustery, volatile, biting, alcoholic but also genuinely thoughtful and apprehensive about the role the West is playing in the Middle East geopolitics and the traps it should avoid.  Terry Hamilton, truly one of the city’s best actors, gives another one of his meticulously-crafted character pieces as the Russian intelligence chief – in a flawless Russian accent, his Dmitri is cruel, ruthless, world-savvy, yet sad and empathetic, a personalized etching of how the Soviet Union behaved in the waning days of the Cold War. Then there’s Kareem Bandealy, as the Afghan warlord Abdullah Khan, giving probably one of the best performances I’ve seen him give (and he always gives superb ones, even in inferior material – Exhibit A: Lookingglass’  Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo earlier this year).  It is a passionate, blazing-fires-in-his eyes turn as he talks about fighting for his tribe and his country, but he infuses it with true tenderness as he builds a loyal friendship with Warnock. 

Rogers, Bowling, and the cast really make Blood and Gifts a play that is not only immensely engaging and informative, but one that allows each audience member to reflect on the state of the world and the decisions that men and women in power make which have repercussions for decades to come. More importantly, I think, the play makes us reflect on our own personal attitudes towards Afghanistan, a country and a people that we here in the US have perceived negatively over the years as the war rages on.  Hopefully part of the reflection is the understanding that ideologues don’t just jump out of a rock with an AK 47, but that history, social conventions, culture, and environment shape and define them, sometimes with parties that are inadvertently complicit.  It’s a play that is imperative viewing for us as theatergoers interested in our world.

You’re a fool if you miss Blood and Gifts. That’s it, I said it. The play is running at Timeline Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave., until July 28.


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