Free Osama

Triplets of hellville: Caryl Churchill's cloning drama
George Byron Griffiths

The Trial of Osama bin Laden arrives with a degree of expectation, given its reported $160,000 budget, its extensive employment of local backstage talent, and its 23-person cast (including a fairly stunning 13 Actors' Equity members listed in the program). No less deserving of note is the play's subject matter: 9/11 and its continuing repercussions.

The evening opens with a video montage that manages to convey the assumption that the audience has thought with insufficient depth about 9/11 and the geopolitical realities that surround it. We see Bush and Rummy, bombs exploding, dead children, but these pat juxtapositions do not have the intended effect. When the action begins, it's with a hoary gimmick: the play within a play. Stephen O'Toole depicts "the Director" with grating sincerity, and soon enough we enter a parallel world in which bin Laden has been captured and awaits trial for murder and terrorism.

Joel Sass's set is emblematic of the show: It is fussily complex, full of gestures of intended import. At the center of the stage is a portal constructed to imitate a giant turbaned head. At stage right hang photos of the 9/11 victims. Elsewhere we see oil drums and our national colors splashed liberally. None of these colliding images provide any serious new insight, nor do they particularly aid the staging.

Director John Clark Donahue adapts Mark Gerzon and Peter Goldmark's script with a surplus of ideas, combining scenes of domesticity, courtroom drama, and government scheming to tease out bin Laden's motivations and the possibility of effectively convicting him in court. (We are reminded, by inference, that the promised 9/11 "evidence" has never really been made available). Attorney Judith (Jennifer Blagan) deals with the implications of hitching her wagon to a jaw-droppingly unpopular client, while bin Laden himself (Charles Hubbell, doing a decently humanizing take on America's bogeyman) makes plans within a dramatically reduced range of choices. Don't worry, he's as wily as advertised.

A couple of fairly inexplicable musical interludes deal primarily with deception, fear, and the apocalyptic tinge of current times--as well as how these notions can be manipulated for political ends (gee, you think so?). The tunes, it must be said, are not good: Their leering quality is conceptually tone deaf and tasteless (and not in a good way). Yet a further aesthetic crime is committed, this one against good structure, when we're treated to a bummer ending, then an alternate finale, and then a bit of speechifying.

A world premiere this misguided doesn't happen by accident. Osama's trial seems to be getting a trial run here. One imagines that Gerzon and Goldmark, a longtime New York public servant who formerly directed the city's Port Authority, drafted this show with an eye toward moving it off-Broadway. (Local producer Charles Neerland can claim responsibility for the first-tier talent--and, alas, the second-tier venue.) And it's admirable that the duo feels compelled to tackle the herd of elephants in the living room of this historical moment. But providing political analysis no better than anything that could be found in a daily newspaper, then sending us off into the night with magnanimous good wishes that perhaps we shall open our minds and ponder our lives and times, is at best soppy-headed and at worst entirely condescending.


Illusion's local premiere of Caryl Churchill's A Number is a finely crafted extension of all those chemically enhanced college conversations about cloning: Dude, what if they cloned Hitler but, like, raised him as a Quaker? (Answer: You'd get Richard Nixon). In this sharp and charged hour-long drama, dad Salter (Steve Hendrickson) deals with three of his sons (all Nathan Christopher), two of whom are clones.

Initially Salter consoles his son Bernard after he learns that there are a number of Bernard clones running around the world. Salter's complicity in this state of affairs is ambiguous, though the appearance of a second Bernard sparks a series of revelations that result in murder and, finally, a big dose of tortuous banality. Ultimately technological perversion is brought to bear. Hendrickson plays Salter's mendacity and self-interest to great effect, and Christopher is by turns halting, menacing, and utterly paper-deep in the three characters he portrays. This is a smart, challenging, and intellectually rewarding night, saved from any potential clinical sterility by two (make that four) gut-rich performances.

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