'Lidless' asks hard questions through hard-edged theatre
Sunday’s matinee is the show’s final performance
“Lidless” is a confrontational play that is not easy to enjoy. That’s because it does not particularly want to be liked – it wants to viewed critically.
Given the subject matter – the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay by the U.S. government – the play is inherently political. In evaluating ”Lidless,” it is important to recognize that it adheres to Brechtian theories of theatre rather than the more traditional Aristotelian theories of tragedy and comedy that underlie most plays today.
Rather than postulate the play as a representation of reality, Bertolt Brecht’s early 20th Century theory of "epic theatre" encourages reinforcing the artificiality of the play – through harsh lighting, minimal props, unsympathetic characters – anything to encourage a critical, questioning attitude by the audience, especially regarding social or political issues.
“Lidless” by young playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig won the 2009 Yale Drama Series Prize. The play follows military interrogator Alice home after her tour of duty at Guantanamo Bay. It opens ambiguously with Alice in combat fatigues while a girl who will learn is her daughter, Rhiannon, chants about breathing, “Just this one breath.”
With only a week left in her tour, Alice receives authorization for a new interrogation technique designed specifically to break down devout Muslims: “invasion of space by a female.” Although she could just coast out, she instead chooses to embrace the technique, with the knowledge that a Muslim man merely subjected to them could be condemned to hell. On stage, she strips to her sports bra to interrogate a prisoner named Bashir, and pretends she is menstruating, a particularly ominous condition for Muslim men.
Alice also takes medication from her friend, Riva, designed to reduce memory, citing her father’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after Vietnam. Riva herself is an Iraq refugee who refuses to speak Arabic because her own father was tortured to death under Saddam Hussein.
Flash forward fifteen years. Alice runs a flower shop in Texas, has a husband, Lucas, and daughter Rhiannon. Through a series of unlikely events (again reinforcing the artifice of the play) Bashir, now dying of liver disease contracted at Gitmo, tracks Alice down to offer her an opportunity to be accountable for her actions and return him to life. Through a series of powerful interactions and confrontations, we learn that Alice raped Bashir, and than Rhiannon is actually his biological daughter.
Alice refuses to donate a portion of her liver to a man she can’t remember. When Rhiannon accidently dies, Bashir gets her liver for transplant instead. He is then reunited with Zakiyah, his long estranged daughter from Iraq. The play ends in a montage of simultaneous scenes: Lucas preparing to return to his heroin addition; Riva reading prayers in Arabic for Bashir; Alice trying to reunite with Rhiannon by breathing the air in a inflatable globe that Rhiannon blew up with her breath, until the world is literally deflated.
Okay, convoluted, heavy-handed, implausible, and certainly not a pretty tale. Plenty of Verfremdungseffekt, the audience-distancing effect that Brecht advocated.
With one particular exception, there is little pretense of reality. Props are minimal: a few flowers, a birthday cake, an inflatable globe. The abstract stage of ambiguous wooden boxes reinforces that we are watching actors. Tellingly, the area where the interrogations occur is defined by a chain mail fence that defines Rhiannon’s bedroom, her place of refuge.
The brutality of the play forces the audience to become witnesses of crimes against humanity (in a moral sense – you can debate the legal issues regarding Gitmo all night). Beyond its implied call for reassessment of U.S. policy in the war on terror, the play also raises serious questions about what it means to be female today. Is legalization of sexual harassment when used for some utilitarian purpose liberation or further subjugation?
The show eschews empathy with most of its characters. Alice’s refusal to remember her actions, Rhiannon’s bitter teen angst, Lucas’ heroin background, all distance us from identifying with them. Bashir himself resists our sympathy in a different way: regardless of his guilt or innocence, we fear we would not be so rational, so forgiving, were we to undergo the tortures inflicted on him.
The cast includes Alida Holguin Gunn as Alice, Kristen Islas as Rhiannon, David M. Felix as Lucas, Angelica Rodenbeck as both Riva and Zahiyah, and Guillermo Francisco Jones as Bashir
Gunn gives an amped up performance as Alice. She demonstrates that it’s a thin line between interrogator and dominatrix as she humiliates Bashir (who is only implied during the torture scenes – smartly, he isn’t physically revealed until he walks into her shop). Later during a tense confrontation, Gunn flips a switch in her head, and immediately becomes the interrogator again, her voice, her physical demeanor, even her accent transformed back to her former incarnation.
Kristen Islas similarly does a fine turn as Rhiannon, a challenging role since it sometimes involves mouthing the Cowhig’s poetry, sometimes being just a kid, often being pissed off, kissing Bashir before she knows who he is, later attacking him and breaking his nose (the aforementioned exception – there’s a lot of blood in the scene for shock value) and finally dying on stage of asphyxiation.
Jones also gives a well-measured performance as Bashir, outwardly simple , rational and calm and ever so broken inside. He careful implies his rage, conscious of the uselessness of his anger, in a constant struggle to fully control himself in hopes of becoming fully human again.
Tautly directed by longtime Borderlands Theater stalwart Eva Zorrilla Tessler, “Lidless” is harsh political theatre. “Lidless” doesn’t want to be liked; it wants to change you. It is powerful enough to do just that.
Reviewer’s note: I prefer to critique productions at the start of their runs. “Lidless” was not originally on my schedule to review. However, earlier this week, director Eva Tessler emailed me and requested a review, regardless of the lateness. I attended the Friday performance of the show’s final weekend.