Truth and Treason, which premiered at Monument National nearly eight years to the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, takes as its subject the American invasion of Iraq. According to Rahul Varma, playwright and cofounder of the Teesri Duniya (“Third World” in Hindi) Theatre, it’s part of an ambitious social project whose aim is to “Change the World, one Play at a Time.”
In these dark post-9/11 days, such optimism is arresting. Teesri Duniya’s mission is to produce “socially and politically relevant theatre” while promoting “multicultural diversity and intercultural interaction.” Past productions include My Name is Rachel Corrie, about an American peace activist killed while attempting to defend a Palestinian home from Israeli demolition, and Bhopal, about the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in India. Teesri Duniya themes tend to be controversial and timely with multi-ethnic casts. The plays are often translated and produced in other languages, including Hindi, and political discussion groups are frequently held following the shows.
Truth and Treason, which focuses on terrorism, fits right in with the Teesri Duniya mission. It opens with the death of 10-year-old girl, shot by a US soldier at a checkpoint in Iraq on the eve of an international conference on rebuilding the country. The set, designed by Roman Fabre, is effectively stark, lined with khaki tarpaulins and hazy with smoke. Sound effects by Jesse Ash add to the tension. A voice barks over a loudspeaker, ordering the girl to halt. Later on, sounds of helicopters, an angry mob, a siren and gunfire are used to strong effect.
When the girl’s father, a detainee in an American Army prison who is suspected of terrorist activity, begins writing vitriolic speeches about the killing, the American military commander and the Iraqi Prime Minister fear insurrection.
Although Truth and Treason slams American militarism, it tries hard to refrain from overt America-bashing. Its hero is an American army captain whose senseless death twins him with the martyred Iraqi child. Other Americans don’t come off so well, however. The American Commander is as soulless as they come, and the captain’s Afro-American lover, who is also chief organizer of the conference on Iraq’s reconstruction, is certainly no Girl Guide. The Iraqis are likewise mixed. The child and her grieving mother are unequivocal war victims, but others, like a local religious leader and even the Iraqi Prime Minister, foment violence for personal gain.
The cast is generally solid, with performances by David Francis (the American Commander) and Ivan Smith (the smarmy Iraqi Prime Minister) standing out as stellar. Director Arianna Bardesono has done a fine job, adding choreographic touches to underscore the helplessness and confusion felt by soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire.
Strong as the production is, this play is not about to change the world. Varma’s characters would need to be much more subtly drawn, and his vision more nuanced to provoke the level of soul-searching such change would require. What the play does manage to do is raise questions about the interface of art and politics, questions important enough to warrant the price of a theatre ticket.
Truth and Treason by Rahul Varma and directed by Arianna Bardesono runs through September 19, 8:30 pm at the Monument National, 1182 blvd. St-Laurent. Box Office 514 871-2222. For more details, go to Monument National.
Claire Rothman is a local writer whose best-selling novel The Heart Specialist was released this spring.