Yemen. Good Lord, what a hornet’s nest. The Saudis vs the Iranians. The Houthi rebels vs the Yemeni government. The Americans (and their Saudi clients) vs the Iranians and Al Qaeda. The Sunnis vs the Shiites. Al Qaeda and ISIS vs… everyone. All conspiring to turn Yemen into a smoking ruin, a world of never-to-be-repaired bomb-blasted buildings, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Into this seething nightmare steps playwright James Still who fashions a fascinating and flawed play, Miranda (at Illusion Theater, through Feb 18), set in Aden (Yemen’s capital, built, as the play points out several times, in a volcano). In it, the eponymous Miranda, a spy, visits a women’s clinic (the only place in this fiercely Muslim city where women be physically touched, and thus get effective medical care) run by Dr. Al-Agbhari. Miranda wants the good doctor to reveal the (nefarious, one assumes) activities of Al-Agbhari’s brother-in-law (the play is vague here). The CIA affiliated Miranda has a cover: an organization called “Building Bridges,” dedicated to bringing the works of William Shakespeare to deserving Yemenis.
Miranda fascinates: Still refuses to look away. He takes the Middle Eastern bull by the horns (and it’s a wild and dangerous bull) and writes about spies, men and women trying to convince themselves that they know what they’re doing – and that they’re doing some good. We wonder. The Yemeni characters are gamely attempting to make for themselves a decent life. Our hearts go out to them. Car bombs explode and still Still charges ahead, forcing us to evaluate and reevaluate our stake in this sun-drenched hell-on-earth.
Flawed: because Miranda refuses to focus. There are large sections of the play which made (for me) not much sense. The use of multiple casting is unhelpful. The focus on Shakespeare’s Othello seemed endless. Many scenes feel pumped up. There are a number of unconvincing plot twists, (which I am virtuously not going to reveal).
I tried hard to love Carolyn Pool as Miranda. I often succeeded. In the scenes with Dr. Al-Agbhari and with Shahid (the young Yemeni working on Othello) Pool is sweet, focused and compelling. In the scenes with Miranda’s somewhat over-the-top CIA handlers, Pool underplays – and steals. She is an actor of poise and presence. But often, in Miranda, Pool falls back on generic (I felt) combativeness and hostility. It feels fakey. I blame the play: Pool is trying to provide energy lacking in the scenes.
As usual, Steve Hendrickson thrills. He has a sly, giggling-just-under-the-surface energy that makes him one of the funniest actors I know. He puts this wonderful quality to excellent use in Miranda and his scenes, as a result, crackle. Delta Rae Giordano and Ricky Morrisseau, as the Yemeni characters Dr. Al-Agbhari and Shahid, are lovely, exuding a compelling quiet courage.
But the real revelation in Miranda is Beth Gilleland. She beautifully combines charm and dangerousness. This quality is niftily amplified by her dorky (I hope I’m not insulting anyone; kudos to costumer Barbara Portiga) outfits. Gilleland is tall, arch and powerful, yet sweet and funny, (as she chugs her vodka shooters). It’s a frightening combination. Brava.
And bravo to director Michael Robins for keeping this sprawling play focused.
I don’t mean to suggest that Miranda is a terrible play. Certainly it is breath-takingly ambitious, dealing with difficult and treacherous subject matter. Definitely worthwhile.
John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. His The Sisters Eight will be presented at First Stage Milwaukee. His screenplays, A Slaying Song Tonight and The Deflowering Of Father Trimleigh are under option. Please visit his informational website.