ABDI: Hmmn, we have a talent for division! You know the proverb: My Nation against the World, my Clan against my Nation, my Family against my Clan…
NORTH: … Me and My Brother against my Family, Me against my Brother.
A telling remark that implies a fair amount about Somali culture, this quote thematically resonates throughout the whole of Cassini’s provocative and thought-provoking new play.
Drawing inspiration from the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, carried out by Somali terrorist faction Al Shalaab, A Man Like You is a hypothetical scenario that takes place in a containment cell over the course of 102 days. The British Diplomat in question–RED Soil Productions’ acting cofounder and artistic director Matthew Stannah as Patrick North–has been kidnapped and is being held against his will for reasons that at first aren’t clear. It is only over the course of his time in captivity that his captor’s intentions are brought to light, and as is often the case, things aren’t always as they seem.
Stannah, who gives a wrenching and emotionally present turn as the diplomat in distress, rarely leaves the stage for more than thirty seconds out of the entire 100 minute production with no intermission. Whether he is being choked, thrown to the ground, or wrestling with his captors, Stannah’s performance is as impressive physically as it is emotionally. His performance is certainly enhanced by that of his scene partner Abdi, the Somali interrogator and captor played by Jeffrey Marc. Marc’s Abdi is an intelligent man–or rather a “child” if one were to ask Patrick North’s opinion–whose political motivations are complex and unflinching, but inevitably puzzling to any outsider. Stannah and Marc’s duologue is concise and briskly paced, and the intensity at the heart of the production is as a result of the palatable on-stage chemistry between the pair.
Interspersed throughout scenes between North and Abdi are a series of soliloquies performed by North’s wife Elizabeth, who is back in England and struggling with the idea of losing the man she loves. In contrast with North and Abdi’s continuous political wrangling, the asides from Jenny Boote’s Elizabeth are welcome respite, an opportunity for the audience to process the events of the scene prior. Though these scenes are infrequent and sometimes short in length compared to those of the main story, Boote has created a sympathetic and interesting character who isn’t the least bit slighted by a lack of material.
Rounding out the cast of four is Andrew Clarke as Hassan, in a role which is more representative of a particular attitude than anything else. Hassan must have at most ten lines in the entire play, but his presence it felt with every entrance. Best referred to as an enforcer, Clarke’s Somali fighter lays the hurt on North when necessary, is always seen brandishing an assault rifle, and–unlike his partner Abdi–cannot speak English and is only heard speaking in his native language. Representing the more general perception of a “terrorist,” Hassan stands in stark contrast to his counterpart Abdi, whose beliefs are more progressive and polarizing than expected.
Director Yudelka Heyer, who won Best Director at the 2014 Strawberry Theatre Festival for her staging of cast member/cofounder Matthew Stannah’s Good Morning, has delivered a production which is both engaging and thought-provoking. Performed in the intimate space of the IATI Theater in the East Village, the basement-sized theater is a fitting locale that successfully emulates the feeling of being held in captivity. The set by Christopher Wharton is based on a split level design, with an elevated platform upstage used to distinguish the difference in location between Elizabeth’s asides in England and her husband’s time in captivity. The lighting by Michael O’Connor aides in the realization of this illusion, highlighting the active scene, and dimming the lights on the other.
Designed by Steven Daniels, the costumes effectively solidify the establishment of the two different, overlapping stories. Elizabeth is typically found dressed in modern and professional English attire, while her husband’s captors’s clothing is a collection of naturally distressed and shabby items, with camouflage militant gear thrown in. North, a man in captivity, is naturally the most disheveled, and wears a worn-out and soiled button down dress shirt and pants for most of the play.
By the end of A Man Like You, many ideas and observations about the nature of terrorism have been discussed at length, but ultimately it is still a mystery what it is exactly that motivates the extremists. Despite the lack of satisfaction or resolution that comes with the end of the play, Cassini’s play successfully challenges the generally accepted perception of what might motivate a terrorist attack. Riveting and driven by the relationship between the show’s core actors, A Man Like You is a thought-provoking and imaginative exploration of a challenging and sensitive subject.
A Man Like You (through July 31, 2016)
RED Soil Productions
IATI Theater, 64 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission