Eye Of The Lamb by the Workhaus Collective, performing at the Playwrights Center

Anne Enneking in Eye Of The Lamb

Anne Enneking in Eye Of The Lamb.

Contemporary Iraq no longer exists. It has devolved into a nightmare of warring factions, tribes, militias, armies, clans and groups of insane people: Iran-affiliated Shia, Islamic State-affiliated Sunni, the demoralized but still well-armed Iraqi Army, Al-Qaeda-affiliated anti-Assad fighters, the Kurdish Peshmerga, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Special Forces. To name but a few. All sitting atop a lovely sea of petroleum.

Iraq is, IOW, quite similar now to the mess encountered by Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill and other militaristic Europeans a hundred years ago. It behooves us (on the theory that those unaware of history are condemned to repeat it) to study closely the challenges faced by Bell and her brave band of Brits. Their efforts to unify the fractious Arabs (not yet really called Iraqis), to set up a stable government, to instill a useful sense of patriotism. We have much to learn from Gertrude Bell’s travails.

This is the goal that playwright Trista Baldwin sets out for herself in Eye Of The Lamb (Workhaus Collective, performing at the Playwrights Center, through Feb 27): explore and analyze Bell. Did she make mistakes? Can we avoid them? Was she too locked into her patrician class? Was an independent and peaceful Iraq an impossibility? Is it still? Lamb is one of the most breath-takingly ambitious plays I’ve seen in a long while.

Baldwin doesn’t make it easy. She avoids the obvious trap of turning Eye Of The Lamb into a dull, exposition-heavy history lesson. But her solution – to make Lamb theatrical, fragmented, almost hallucinatory; to give us a Bell who is (at the end of her life) agitated and fretful; to use, almost desperately, flashbacks and rapid character transformations; to give us a play filled with comic frenzy – makes Eye Of The Lamb a challenge to follow.

But not impossible: don’t see it after a heavy drowsiness-inducing meal. Lamb is performed in one act and is not over-long (another trap Baldwin adroitly avoids). Imbibe your alcohol after the play (I recommend Tracy’s, down the street). Do a little reading (the Feb 2016 Harpers has a good Iraq article; almost every issue of the Strib has something). Baldwin has something important to say. Be willing to go the extra mile.

Director Jeremy Wilhelm and his cast serve Eye Of The Lamb beautifully. Annie Enneking plays Bell with zest and spirit and energy, in no way finger-waggingly stern. Pearce Bunting is perfect as the pompous Percy and as the even more pompous (if that’s possible) Dobbs.  He performs a spot-on rendition of “The Sheik Of Araby.” Munikantha Kulasinghe delights as King Faisal, thrust unwillingly into a position of power. Also he plays fiddle in a terrific string band, whose music weaves in and out of the play. The music is one of Lamb‘s great pleasures.

And Taous Khazem as Marie. Quiet, poised, soft-spoken, ethereal, beautiful, sweet. “She’s mine,” Bell asserts and who can blame her? I adored Khazem and so, unless you have a tragic gastro-intestinal disorder, will you.

So what are we westerners to do when confronting the current Middle East disaster? Throw up our hands, saying, “Iraq. Yikes.” Don’t. These crazies are in Europe and they are on their way here. They will arrive sooner than we imagine. We need to think seriously about the challenges they raise. Trista Baldwin’s Eye Of The Lamb is a good place to start.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, about the magic of bedtime stories, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, has been published. The audiobook version (for which John did the voice) has been completed. A Chinese translation is in progress. Another book, Deep River, has been completed. John’s adaptation of Art Dog is playing at the Denver Children’s Theater. Please visit John’s website.

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