Sunday, March 05, 2017

A Frightful Interrogation: World Premiere 'Skin for Skin' Probes the Terror of Torture -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Skin for Skin
a world premiere play
by Paul Pasulka
directed by Michael Menendian
Agency Theater Collective
at Rivendell Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 2

Right or wrong. Good or bad. Acceptable or inappropriate.

The delineations may seem abundantly clear and deceptively easy, particularly when pontificating in peaceful environs.

But without meaning to condone or excuse egregious acts of police brutality or military torture, it's a lot harder to presume the "proper" course of action for those actually in the thick of things.

Or, therefore, to have an immutable sense of righteousness.

Though both an idealist and pacifist, I also value my security and intrinsically assume--without wanting to give it too much thought--that brave men and women do things that I would probably abhor in order to keep me, and millions of others, safe.

As reprehensible as Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessup character is in A Few Good Men, there's also much truth within the assertions of his famed "You can't handle the truth!" courtroom diatribe.

And great drama can powerfully explore the dichotomy between disparate beliefs and conflicting realities.

The best plays somehow seem to do so without taking sides, while making one see things from new perspectives.

Unfortunately, while the Agency Theater Collective's world premiere of Paul Pasulka's Skin for Skin is an estimable effort from all involved--including the playwright, who is a clinical psychologist--I found its narrative too straightforwardly presented to be as dramatically rich or intellectually arresting as I would have hoped.

Fictionally-derived from the torture conducted at Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. Army personnel during the Iraq War, Skin for Skin features Col. Lewis (well-played by Tony St. Clair, though the character himself seems straight out of central casting) overseeing the torturous interrogation of Ayyub (Steve Silver, excellent here), a Muslim Iraqi-American contractor.

As I know mainly from having read it in the show's press release, Ayyub is supposed to represent the biblical Job, and the torture he endures is clearly brutal and barbaric. I wasn't clear--and I wouldn't reveal it anyway--if he is ultimately shown to be complicit in an act of deadly terrorism, yet as depicted here, the interrogation methods are humanely indefensible.

To feel better about his tactics, Col. Lewis--who is clearly just one cog in a chain of command that goes way above him--enlists an Army psychologist named Dr. O'Brien (Shariba Rivers is quite good, and I'd be curious if the script specifies an African-American woman for the role, which adds depth) who is versed in the appropriate forms and degrees of "interrogation," but unable or unwilling to become much of a roadblock to the Colonel or the troops carrying out his orders.

The seven character play--at least 2 or 3 of whom don't feel all that utilized or necessary--also features some nice dialogue between a pair of soldiers involved with the interrogation/torture, Sgt. Lindsey (Hannah Tarr) and Pvt. Michaels (David Goodloe).

All of the acting is stellar and director Michael Menendian--who heads the Raven Theatre--makes strong use of the Rivendell space, a storefront on Ridge Road.

Even if I didn't love Skin for Skin, seeing it only furthered my regard for those who created it--and everyone in the Chicago theater community--as the considerable talent and effort involved in writing, staging, designing, casting, directing, performing and publicizing it was readily apparent.

That I've been attending Chicago theater at all levels quite voluminously for 17 years and this was my first foray to the Rivendell or familiarity with the Agency Theater Collective certainly bespeaks the incredible depth of theatrical practitioners in our midst.

I was invited to attend & review this show, and actually feel somewhat amiss that I am unable to lavish great praise on it.

For certainly there is much to admire in simply its existence.

But unless I terribly misread things--which may speak to other problems with the script--it appears that a brutish lout of a colonel prescribes the brutal torture of a decent Muslim man, with soldiers and even a psychologist forced into complicity.

Without pretending to be a playwright or a psychologist, I think it may have been much more interesting for both the colonel and the man being interrogated to be far less overt. Perhaps the colonel could be more sensitive and introspective, while still feeling compelled to torture Ayyub, because as Lewis does say:

"What we do, we do to prevent harm."

Though a somewhat similar scenario was recently presented in Northlight's world premiere of Faceless--where a white teenage girl joins ISIS and is prosecuted by a Muslim attorney--I also couldn't help but wonder here:

"What if the Col. Lewis and Ayyub characters were directly switched?"

To see a studious, sensitive Muslim-American U.S. Army Colonel wrestling with the propriety of torturing a possibly duplicitous white contractor might have helped me better appreciate the complex nature of gleaning vital information from uncooperative sources.

As it is, while Skin to Skin is well-acted and staged, I can't say I found it all that riveting, revelatory or challenging to my thinking coming in.

But especially as a world premiere, it's possible to imagine its many worthwhile elements being refined into something far more compelling.

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