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TimeLine Theatre: Blood and Gifts

Phyllis Dreazen | 7/10/2013, 4:44 p.m.
Theater in this great theater town, which has been especially good this season, continues into the summer. Of the many ...

Theater in this great theater town, which has been especially good this season, continues into the summer. Of the many fine productions I’ve seen, the one that has taken most permanent residence in my memory and heart is J. T. Rogers’ Blood and Gifts in its Chicago premiere at TimeLine Theatre through July 28.

Part spy thriller, part Shakespearean history drama, part morality play, where humor and horror turn on a dime, the story focuses on the CIA’s clandestine involvement in Afghanistan in the years of the Soviet presence (1979-91); it seems much the same story as the US/NATO involvement today, which is beginning to wind down (also) after a dozen years. Reading today’s headlines of the forthcoming Taliban-Afghani-US negotiations is, as Yogi Berra said, “Déjà vu all over again.”

In the 1980s, Andy H. moved into our complex. Andy was an Afghani who had left his country after a Soviet bomb destroyed his house and killed his family. No one, then, knew much about Afghanistan other than it had a border with Pakistan and its Khyber Pass was strategically significant since Alexander the Great (327 BC). There is evidence that the biblical Ten Tribes made their way there, via India, and became warriors and mercenaries: especially the Pashtuns. My son, who loved Andy’s tales, became a war correspondent covering Afghanistan and Iraq.

Blood and Gifts began life as the US contribution in Tricycle Theatre’s (UK) The Great Game: Afghanistan, a dozen plays covering the 250-year period in which Britain and Russia vied for control of Central Asia. That group later expanded to include the United States. And Pakistan. The original 20 minutes, five characters, grew into this full evening, with 25 characters, five of whom––representatives of the C.I.A, MI6, KGB, ISI (the intelligence branch of the Pakistani Army) and a mujahadeen warrior (Osama bin Laden got his start here)––play a complicated spy game for more than a decade. Their alliances shift: they are sometimes friends, sometimes enemies, but they can only really talk to each other.

James Warnock (Timothy Edward Kane), a C.I.A. operative has come to make an alliance with ISI Colonel Afridi (Anish Jethmalani/Demetrios Troy) to be the middleman against the Soviets (who were invited by the Afghani government to put down a budding rebellion). His “hello” gift is 100,000 unimpressive rifles. Simon Craig (Raymond Fox), the MI6 agent who has spent his career in the area, is the sometime middleman between James and Afridi. Dmitri Gromov (Terry Hamilton), James’ gregarious, joke-telling Russian counterpart, should be his biggest enemy but, over their time together, becomes his closest-in-outlook friend. Jim tells Afridi, “We need someone to work with on the other side of the border” (Americans are not allowed into Afghanistan). That person is Abdullah Khan (Kareem Bandealy/Anish Jethmalani), a larger than life tribal warlord for whom family is everything. His closest associate, Saeed, a hopeful quasi hipster (Behzad Dabu) turns out to be his son; his death changes the course of the war.

Nick Bowling directed the terrific cast and, with Cultural Consultants Abdullah Wardak and Habibullah Wardak and Dialect Coach Eva Breneman, created a whole world. Collette Pollard made the whole theater a set. The areas surrounding the stage are CIA offices: audiences are invited to sit at desks, go through drawers, consult maps, and become part of CIA mindset. The play set is two-tiered, reminiscent of a jail; most action takes place on the ground floor in a kind of square. Lighting (Jesse Klug), Projections (Mike Tutaj), Music (Habibullah Wardak, Mikhail Fiksel) and Sound (Mikhail Fiksel) add to the seamless whole.

The Soviet occupation ends. Gromov is on his way home: “I loved that country,” he tells Jim. “I loved those people. I believed—mind and soul—I could make a difference. Kabul, that great and glorious ancient city…all through this war…we protected so well that even as you were killing our soldiers, you felt safe enough to keep your embassy open. But now that you have beaten us … that we are leaving Kabul, you feel so unsafe that you are closing your embassy…. Is that not a funny kind of victory?” “History will Judge,” Jim says. “I fear she will not be kind to you, my friend. I know she will not be kind to me,” (The embassy reopened in 2001; it was under construction until 2006.)

We know the first part of the prediction; in 18 months we’ll have a good idea of the second