The current Iraq War has produced obvious casualties—some 29,000 U.S. soldiers injured and 4,100 killed, to say nothing of civilian deaths. But playwright Judith Thompson concerns herself with collateral damage: a soldier coerced; a scientist betrayed; an opponent of Saddam Hussein’s regime, killed in the first Gulf War, who watches ghostlike as the coalition forces botch this one. The Palace of the End, produced by Epic Theatre Ensemble, isn’t itself a casualty of war, but like lots of recent politically minded plays, it offers a self-congratulatory take on complex issues. Rather than fomenting debate or inciting original thinking, the play makes it all too easy for the lefty audience (I include myself) to nod along with U.S. missteps and emit appropriate “tsk-tsk”-ing sounds.Thompson organizes her piece as a triptych. Lynndie England (Teri Lamm) delivers the first monologue; Dr. David Kelly (Rocco Sisto), a British weapons inspector and subsequent suicide, mouths the second; Nehrjas Al Saffarh (Heather Raffo), the deceased dissident, ends the play. As befits the recipient of the 2008 Susan Smith Blackburn prize, Thompson crafts a fine speech for each, though she does belabor certain metaphors and symbols (a looking glass, a game of hide and seek, a date palm).
The Lynndie England section, entitled “My Pyramids,” does provide a few surprises. Thompson takes an unexpectedly compassionate tone toward the woman, presenting England as a victim of the brutal U.S. military. Thompson even dares to toy a bit with audience sympathies, rendering England’s character likable one moment and then having her refer to an Iraqi prisoner as a “monkey” the next. Under Daniella Topol’s direction, Epic regular Teri Lamm makes a game run at the role, but she too often seems like an intelligent actress deliberately dumbing herself down. Sisto and Raffo, playing bright, articulate characters, don’t face the same challenge, but neither are their orations as interesting. Sisto’s tends toward the precious, while Raffo’s, though moving, is rather too similar to portrayals she gave in her own show about Iraqi women, The Nine Parts of Desire.
I might feel more kindly toward Palace had I not already seen another Lynndie England play (Guardians), another Iraq drama directed by Topol (Sand), or any number of other plays with much the same concerns, several staged at the Culture Project. But as the war drags on, so too do the dramas about it.