Wednesday 3 June 2015

Rattlestick's production of Daniel Talbott's AFGHANISTAN, ZIMBABWE, AMERICA, KUWAIT at the Judson Gym

     One traipses through sand to get to one's seat at the Judson Gym for Daniel Talbott's hypnotic new play. The setting is the desert. There's a concrete bunker at the rear of the set and a changing skyscape on the screen at the rear. This outpost is manned by two young soldiers, Smith (Seth Numrich) and Leadem (Brian Miskell). Smith is all explosive energy, constantly on the move. There's also a bit of the playground bully in his character. Leadem is often silent, standing apart. Their behavior is in part a reaction to the fear they are experiencing. Their radio no longer works and they are running out of food and water. At first we assume that they are somewhere in the Middle East, but we discover that this is in the future and wars and climate change have turned most of the world into a desert. It seems that everyone is dead but Smith, Leadem and Miller (Chris Stack), who wanders in after his battalion has been massacred. Without food and water, there's no chance of survival for these three men. Smith and Leadem move in and out of memories/fantasies of experiences with women. Smith remembers, or perhaps imagines, a tender relationship, maternal and sexual, with the mother of a fellow soldier (Kathryn Erbe). Leadem imagines discussions with his kid brother (Jimi Stanton), who acts as his conscience, and a sweet romance with a Serbian girl (Jelena Stupliann). The reality of his dealings with her are not so sweet: he actually held her legs while fellow soldiers gang-raped her. There's a sweet side to these men that they are afraid to show to other men.
     Daniel Talbott seems to specialize in the ways in which young men mask their vulnerability when they are with other men. SLIPPING focused on a gay teenager who moves from an abusive relationship with another teenager to becoming the abuser with a boy who loves him to cutting himself, a form of self-abuse. Eli, the central character in SLIPPING, can't reach out meaningfully to another person. The men in AFGHANISTAN, ZIMBABWE, AMERICA, KUWAIT can't admit their fear, guilt, and longings to each other.
     Talbott has given his play a mesmerizing production. The acting couldn't be better. Seth Numrich, who also starred in SLIPPING, is an intensely physical actor who completely realizes Smith. I've seen Numrich in GOLDEN BOY on Broadway and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH in London and at first didn't recognize him here. Fear here is expressed in chaotic bursts of energy, but in his memory/fantasy with Brian's mother, he becomes sweet, reticent, still. Brian Miskell is equally brilliant. He looks like he expects to be whipped at any moment. He, too, is only relaxed and physically free in his fantasies with the Serbian girl. High praise also has to go to the sound design (John Zalewski) and the projections (David Tennent) that enhance the mood of this theatrically powerful experience.
     AFGHANISTAN, ZIMBABWE, AMERICA, KUWAIT deserves to be seen. As writer and director, Daniel Talbott is a true poet of the theater and Numrich and Miskell give extraordinary performances. There aren't a lot of seats in the Judson Gym and the play is not performed every night, so plan ahead.

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