Reed (Steve Hendrickson) and Miranda (Carolyn Pool) discuss CIA business in the Illusion Theater’s Miranda.
Miranda, an original play by James Still, had its world premiere last weekend at the Illusion Theater. The premiere of an original play is an exciting event, providing insight into an issue the playwright has chosen and (one hopes) the joy of discovering the playwright’s new theatrical concepts for expressing dramatic action. Still’s play, under the direction of Michael Robins, provides insight into the life of a CIA operative.
The titular Miranda of this play is an American CIA operative in the Middle East. The play follows her journey from Amman, Jordan to the City of Aden in civil war-torn Yemen. She has arrived on assignment to Yemen after surviving a bomb blast in a Jordanian hotel that killed two friends. Miranda suffers flashbacks, bad dreams, and a ringing in her ears. However, she plays down the after-effects of the explosion so her superiors won’t send her back to desk duty in the states. Carolyn Pool acutely portrays Miranda’s personal existential crisis against the background of violent unrest. Her angst can be compared to that of T.E. Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame), who pursued his own quest for truth through an extraordinary commitment to the aspirations of the Arab people.
The play begins with Miranda talking with her friends before the bombing, but it energizes when Miranda meets Reed, the head of her field office, played with fatalism by Steve Hendrickson. The animated and emotive dialogue between the two characters, who appear to have known each other on a previous assignment, is intensely dramatic and reveals the confusing mix of realities that make up the life of a CIA agent. Reed sees Miranda as a basket case. Even as Miranda swears she is up for the assignment, she relates her near death experience, questions the CIA’s intrusion in Middle Eastern countries and rhetorically asks whether her life as a secret agent has any meaning.
This play opened concurrently with news stories about renewed fighting in Yemen and a slight escalation of U.S. involvement, but the audience learns little about the specific causes of the civil war or the major players involved. In Aden, Miranda’s cover is an international organization known as Building Bridges that ostensibly is dedicated to helping Yemen’s youth. (Editor’s note: There is a real-life U.S. organization of that same name. No relation.) Even though it’s actually a CIA front, Miranda runs theatre workshops to keep up pretenses. However, she has only one participant: a Yemeni boy, Shahid (played by Ricky Morrisseau), who is obsessed with Shakespeare’s Othello. It is here that the playwright inserts an interesting theatrical concept by having Shahid, at key points, recite soliloquies from Othello that comment on the play’s action. This intercultural theatricality helps us understand the depth of feeling experienced by the people of Yemen.
The play has a subplot concerning Dr. Al-Agbhari, one of Miranda’s assets (i.e., a person providing information to the CIA). This story has an intrinsic intensity which could have held the focus of an entire play by itself. The doctor exclusively treats women and is in an ideal position to gather information about their husbands and other family members which her patients confide to her. Delta Rae Giordano is superb as the Yemeni woman doctor. The story concerning the personal quagmire that Dr. Al-Agbhari finds herself caught in by becoming a CIA asset is riveting.
The multi-leveled set designed by Dean Holzman suggests Miranda’s sense of mental displacement from one scene to the next. Incidental and background music by Miriam Gerberg adds a subliminal sense of cultural authenticity to the play’s setting.
A CIA agent suffering from PTSD while under cover may sound like the makings for good movie melodrama, but Still eschews the stereotypical spy show and gives us a deeper look at a secret agent affected by the loneliness, isolation and constant danger of her job. He also provides insight into the lives of those who live in the war ravaged countries that the CIA infiltrates.
Miranda plays through Feb. 18 at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis, MN.