Fall Guide: The Tricycle Theatre Invades With Its Epic History of Afghanistan

The Public Theater presents director Nicholas Kent's production of The Great Game

The war in Iraq has inspired dozens of plays. Recently, Broadway’s American Idiot made the campaign positively hummable. And yet the conflict in Afghanistan has barely motivated a one-act. This fall, the Public Theater will redress that balance when it presents the Tricycle Theatre’s The Great Game, a series of 12 plays and supplementary monologues tracing nearly 170 years of foreign involvement in Afghanistan. Performances begin December 1 at NYU’s Skirball Center.

According to Nicolas Kent, the artistic director of London’s Tricycle, this epic production (11 hours, including meal breaks) stems directly from his own ignorance. The Tricycle has made a name for itself with what it calls “tribunal plays,” dramatic works drawn from court transcripts and other official documents. To lead such a theater, Kent has had to remain ludicrously well-informed in matters of history and politics. But several years ago, when a friend mentioned the second and third Anglo-Afghan wars, Kent realized he “didn’t know much about either.”

To remedy this defect, he traveled to Kabul, undertook copious research, and commissioned 12 writers to provide half-hour dramas on British, Russian, and U.S. incursions in the region. Some scribes were left to choose their subjects; others were assigned a particular time and topic. “I thought that if I could get a number of playwrights to start me at the moment of Western involvement and take me through the story to now,” says Kent, “it would be incredibly illuminating. We might learn quite a few lessons from the past.”

These plays, by U.K. writers and one Yank, Lee Blessing, are divided into three distinct periods: “Invasions and Independence, 1842–1930” covers the British invasion and its aftermath; “Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban, 1979–1996” centers on the Russian occupation and U.S. attempts to destabilize it; and “Enduring Freedom, 1996–2010” examines the present conflict. (Kent somewhat regrets that the era from 1930 through 1970, a period of relative stability during which some social reforms were enacted, has been ignored.) The Great Game also features monologues by Iranian writer Siba Shakib and verbatim pieces drawn from interviews with American and British generals and senior Taliban officials.

The production proved an enormous success in London, earning top marks from all the major papers and an Olivier Award nomination. David Greig, one of the participating playwrights, describes watching the marathon as “both an extremely interesting dramatic experience in terms of story and an immersive, imaginative education in the history of a country.”

Some of the plays, like Ron Hutchinson’s mordant Durand’s Line, about attempts to map Afghanistan, are quite funny. Others, like David Edgar’s chilling Black Tulips, about the Russian occupation, are not. Many ask audiences to reconsider the current conflict in light of historical factors, and countless speeches resonate with contemporary headlines and WikiLeaks, such as a remark from the earliest play, Stephen Jeffreys’s Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad, set in 1842, in which a character says, “This country is a death trap for foreign armies.”

Over the summer, Kent, his writers, and co-director Indhu Rubasingham have readied the piece for its American debut. Most tinkering is slight: cutting a reference to a Brit broadcaster, changing a discussion of Champions League football to a conversation about the banking crisis. Concessions to an American audience, Kent notes, are minor. “Our troops are fighting alongside your troops,” he said, “and we should be able to share this.”

'The Great Game,' December 1 to 19, NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place, publictheater.org

Fall Theater Picks

Orlando
Performances begin September 8

There are hermaphrodites, transmen, MTFs, and the unclassifiably intersexed. There are hirs and zhes. But prepare to require a whole new slew of nouns and pronouns when Sarah Ruhl debuts her adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending novel Orlando. The story, which Rebecca Taichman directs, concerns a noble blessed with several centuries of eternal youth who lives as a man, a woman, and something in between. Will it make theater herstory? Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, classicstage.org

Angels in America
Performances begin September 14

Oil spills, ranting tea partiers, two ongoing wars—if there are still angels in America, their guardianship is less than impressive. Nevertheless, the Signature Theatre, having devoted its season to Tony Kushner, has decided it’s high time to revive his A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Michael Greif will direct both parts of the six-hour play, which will run in repertory with a cast including Billy Porter, Zoe Kazan, and Zachary Quinto. Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street, signaturetheatre.org

The Pitmen Painters
Performances begin September 14

Though charcoal remains a popular artistic medium, coal mining and life drawing usually don’t see much crossover. Yet they intermingle significantly in this play by Lee Hall (the author of Billy Elliot), which comes fresh (minus the coal dust) from a hit London run. Hall excavates the true story of Northumbrian miners who took evening art classes and transformed their daily experience into a series of evocative canvases. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, manhattantheatreclub.com

A Life in the Theatre
Performances begin September 21

Last year’s Mamet fest was more of a Mamet fizzle: The revival of Oleanna shuttered abruptly, a bill of one-acts received scathing notices, Race has ended its run. Perhaps our most incensed playwright can regain his stride with this new production of his 1977 comedy, directed by the Atlantic Theater’s Neil Pepe. Paying tribute to an era of repertory drama now more or less vanished, the play features Patrick Stewart as a seasoned thesp and T.R. Knight as his ambitious protégé. Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, atlantictheater.org

Gatz
Performances begin September 26

Elevator Repair Service has been beating on, boats against the current, in hopes that the Fitzgerald estate might one day license their epic, nearly-eight-hour adaptation of The Great Gatsby to play in New York. Happily, that great day has arrived. In John Collins’s wondrous production, Nick, Tom, Daisy, Jay, and his many glorious shirts are conjured out of an ordinary office. The play includes every single word of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated novel of self-creation and self-deception. The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, publictheater.org

Hotel Savoy
Performances begin September 30

The Hotel Savoy has a very limited capacity. Want a suite? An en suite? A room with a view? You’re out of luck. In fact, this hotel has such a limited inventory that it caters to only a single guest. The Goethe-Institut and P.S.122 host this site-specific piece by Dominic Huber, into which only one spectator at a time can enter. The play, inspired by a Joseph Roth novella, centers on an enormous inn in a nameless city in the years after World War II. The Goethe-Institut, 1014 Fifth Avenue, ps122.org

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Performances begin October 2

It seems unbelievable that filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has never created a musical. His movies are already so rhythmic, so harmonious. Apparently, Lincoln Center’s Bartlett Sher sensed their melodic potential, since he has helped transform Almodóvar’s 1988 film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, that carnival of candy-colored neurosis, into a tuner with a book by Jeffrey Lane and music by David Yazbek. Sherie Rene Scott and Patti LuPone will play the titular basket cases. Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, lct.org

Three Women
Performances begin October 5

Not long before her suicide, Sylvia Plath treated BBC listeners to a less than cheerful radio play about the terrors of motherhood. Three women, none of them named, discuss troubled pregnancies and fraught childbirths. “I am the center of an atrocity,” says a woman in labor. Director Robert Shaw has adapted this maternity ward to the stage. It runs in repertory with Edward Anthony’s Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath, in which Esther Greenwood, that carefree flit from The Bell Jar, decides to write a poem. 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, 59e59.org

There Are No More Big Secrets
Performances begin November 3

Just a few hours from New York City, Delaware County offers many activities: hiking, boating, fishing, skiing, and an annual lumberjack festival. It’s also a pretty decent place to hide out from the Russian mob. In this new play by Obie Award–winning actress Heidi Schreck, high school teachers have their upstate idyll shattered by the arrival of an old friend, his dissident journalist wife, and their teenage daughter. Asylum-seeking never seemed so bucolic. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, rattlestick.org

Notes From Underground
Performances begin November 7

Those who found wading through 900 pages of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Demons rather a slog may be cheered to learn that Theatre for a New Audience has announced a stage version of one of the author’s much shorter works, adapted by Robert Woodruff and Bill Camp. The redoubtable Camp, under Woodruff’s direction, stars as the titular misanthrope, a man whose seemingly sole pleasure lies in denouncing the corruption that surrounds him. If only he’d lived in an era of op-ed pages. Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street, tfana.org

The Red Shoes
Performances begin November 19

Jimmy Choos strain the arch awfully at vertiginous heights, and Manohlo Blahniks threaten to snap all but the sturdiest of ankles. Certain shoes, though, actually dance their wearer to death. The Red Shoes, a “menacing cabaret” from England’s Kneehigh Theatre, based on a Hans Christian Andersen short story, concerns a young girl and some very deadly footwear. St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street, stannswarehouse.org

Metamorphosis
Performances begin November 30

Cockroaches teem in New York City, but few approach the size or literary significance of the one that Gregor Samsa becomes in Franz Kafka’s entomological novella. That particular Czech insect arrives at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, via a co-production by Iceland’s Vesturport Theater and England’s Lyric Hammermsith. Macabre rocker Nick Cave supplies the play with creepy-crawly songs. Let’s hope this show has legs. Six of ’em. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, bam.org

Three Pianos
Performances begin December 7

If you thought that an evening spent in contemplation of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise might be a rather somber event, you clearly haven’t had enough to drink. This show can help. New York Theatre Workshop hosts a new production of this Obie-winning piece by Hoi Polloi, in which three bibulous composers attempt to pay tribute to their favorite song cycle—while consuming copious amounts of red wine, which they’re kind enough to share with the audience. Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy, and Dave Malloy take us to their lieder. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, nytw.org

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