SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 15, 2013 — Our coverage of this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival continues today, interrupted a bit by a lack of connectivity as we’re currently on the road in a remote part of Michigan. We resume with a brief look at one of this season’s more intriguing plays, Jon Kern’s “Modern Terrorism,” subtitled, “Or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them.”
The weird, convoluted, full title of the play pretty much conveys what you’re going to get: strange, seemingly inappropriate, yet engaging and at times even uproarious comedy and slapstick action that imposes a weird, dark humor on our ongoing but necessary obsession with perpetual jihad.
If at times, the subject matter seems either offensive or inappropriate in this play, we need to pause and remember: nearly twelve years after the horrific and tragic events of 9/11, we’ve had remarkably little artistic response to this watershed historical marker. There are a variety of reasons why, perhaps due in part to a fashionable artistic distase for the country that provides artists with the freedom to express fashionable artistic distaste for this country.
That said, Jon Kern has fired back a response that seems to be perfectly organic. While generating a boatload of laughs, “Modern Terrorism” also gets to the heart of the phenomenon: the murderous imperative of monomaniacal zealots who use the cloak of religion to conceal their own adolescent grasp of the human condition; and the cluelessness of the average American who really has no idea what’s going on and no moral standard to counter it.
As the virtual curtain rises in Shepherd University’s marvelous new state-of-the-art Marinoff Theater, we find ourselves inside the cramped New York apartment occupied, on and off, by head terrorist Qalalaase (Royce Johnson), chief terror technician Rahim Janjua (Omar Maskati), and female associate-operative Yalda Abbasi (Mahira Kakkar).
In other words, Qalalaase’s job is to hatch a terrorist plot, script the scenario, the operation, and the death of a suicide bomber and his (hopefully) hundreds of victims while taking credit for the whole thing. Rahim’s assignment is to wear the bomb and detonate it for the glory of Allah and the wretched deaths of countless infidels. And Yalda’s role is to assist in all the above as any good female terrorist operative is divinely ordained to do.
Problem is that all three co-conspirators turn out to be surprisingly human. Qalalaase is really in this for the ego trip. Rahim has actually come to kinda, sorta really like American and Americans. And Yalda is torn apart by a budding feminism on one hand and the overwhelming desire to avenge the Allied assassination of her husband on the other. In other words, the theoretical mission is often at odds with human motivations, providing us with a trio of three very conflicted freelance terrorists who are trying to write a play with uncertain motivation and meaning.
The whole scenario leads to abrupt confrontations, strange pointless arguments, and surprisingly hilarious family-style quarrels, all greatly at odds with what’s often assumed to be the single-mindedness of a cold-hearted terrorist plot. You’d never think you could laugh at a trio of would-be mass-murderers. But Jon Kern has done the impossible. He’s created a plausible scenario where we can do just that.
Making matters even stranger, the terrorists’ nearest apartment neighbor, a likeable, aimless young fellow named Jerome (Kohler McKenzie), whose brains have been addled to a degree by his habitual drugs of choice, blunders into the plot and soon becomes an enthusiastic participant in it.
This volatile combination produces a great deal of comedy, but also generates some unexpected turns we won’t bother to convey. Bottom line: “Modern Terrorism” is full of fun, laughter—some of it uncomfortable—and enough of a surprise element to keep the audience guessing until the very end.
The play’s dialogue is expertly crafted. Its nihilistic, theater-of-the-absurd message runs chillingly true no matter how we resist it; namely, that most people have become shallow and clueless, more or less, and downright evil when they feel like it. And its plotline is weirdly plausible, drawing us deeper and deeper into the madness than we’d care to go and generating more audience sympathy for the terrorists than we’d like to admit.
The play’s only flaw: at roughly the midpoint of the second act, things seem to get lost for a bit. Dialogue becomes a bit aimless, and the frenetic pace briefly slows to a crawl. Perhaps five to ten minutes of selective cuts would get this act back on the rails a bit more economically. At any rate, the pace does pick up after this dull patch, bringing the entire play to a rousing surprise conclusion.
We’d rate “Modern Terrorism” as one of the top two plays of this year’s festival, much to our surprise. It misses perfection by a cat’s whisker, and fixing this problem could be a relatively easy matter if the playwright chooses to address it.
Performance-wise, CATF’s version of the play is masterfully directed by Ed Herendeen who keeps the pace going while allowing each character to develop fully. And the quartet of actors all do a tremendous job of making largely appealing and very human characters out of individuals most of us would instinctively despise.
Perhaps the most interesting portrayal of all was Omar Maskati’s take on Rahim, the young, still malleable designated bomber who slowly begins to find American life more appealing than an Allah-inspired death. The war that occurs inside his head is a war we all have with ourselves for varying reasons and to varying degrees. And it’s that particular war that lies at the heart of this strange, funny, and genuinely daring play.
A hat tip to all for a fine production.
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