Rough justice

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  November 5, 2008

By the time act two rolls around, with executions nested in executions like Russian dolls and the stage strewn with less-than-realistic-looking body parts, you don't know whether to cry mercy from Quentin Tarantino or John Millington Synge. But between Gammons's adroit mayhem management and Rick Lombardo's sound design, a layering of traditional Irish rebel songs and propulsive rock that adds to the play's momentum, McDonagh's one-trick pony canters. And both the acting and the accents are ace. Lynn R. Guerra's Mairûad warbles sweetly when she isn't shooting, and Colin Hamell brings a droll mix of sadism and politeness to Padraic. Karl Baker Olson is an expressive, cowering Davey, the pony-tailed teen whose discovery of the dead cat sets the juggernaut in motion. And Rory James Kelly, as Padraic's scrofulous old dad, alternates concentrated inertia with such ironic understatement as, following some narrowly averted butchery, "Incidents like this does put tourists off Ireland." If only the prodigiously talented McDonagh didn't try so hard to put us off him.

Of a more documentary bent, though fictional, is Dublin-born Colin Teevan's How Many Miles to Basra?, which is in its US premiere at Stoneham Theatre (through November 9). Set in April of 2003, just a couple of weeks before President Bush's infamous announcement that the Allied mission in Iraq had been accomplished, the play centers on a quartet of British soldiers looking forward to being sent home. But a quick-trigger mistake at a vehicle checkpoint changes that. When some Bedouins are stopped and found to be carrying a large amount of cash, a couple of the soldiers, wrongly thinking the travelers are armed, open fire. An embedded female Northern Irish radio reporter, who just happens to speak Arabic, translates one of the dying men's explanation for the wad of bills: the money is ransom intended for a sheikh holding his wife and child prisoner. The company commander, harboring guilt about an earlier incident in Northern Ireland, determines to make things right by undertaking an unauthorized mission deep into the sweltering desert to deliver the cash.

Stoneham Theatre artistic director Weylin Symes, who helms the agitated production, chose the work, he says, because he wanted an Iraq play motivated not by any political agenda but by the intent to convey what the surreal and morally confusing experience of the war in Iraq is really like. "It's ironic," he admits in a program note, "that I had to go to Great Britain to find the right play about Iraq." But Basra, which first aired on BBC radio in 2004 before being revamped for the stage in 2006, is as formulaic as it is pertinent, its quartet of soldiers stereotypical if relentlessly discordant.

Moreover, despite an arresting abstract set design by Cristina Tedesco that's atmospherically lit by Christopher Ostrom and a subtle, effective sound design by David Reiffel, the play betrays its radio roots, with journal-like direct addresses to the audience, long hitches in vehicles that don't move, and a climax (neatly set at a shrine to a previous Western invasion) that's comprehensible only after the fact. Still, the play has its strengths, among them the exposure of casual racism on the part of the soldiers and the eloquent representation of the Iraqi point of view by a jaded translator snappily played by Mason Sand. There are affecting performances too by Derek Stone Nelson as the troubled commander and Eve Kagan as the baggage-hauling journalist in whom career opportunism and truth telling are one and the same.

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