Saturday, April 1, 2017

When keeping up appearances is a job fraught with peril: 'Miranda' is James Still's latest IRT production


When I worked for newspapers, I was rarely concerned with prying secrets loose from people, but I was always sympathetic to the efforts of my colleagues to convey matters of interest or consequence to the public. That bias has given me a jaundiced view of people who keep secrets for a living in order to find out what others are hiding from them and thus to protect purposes and behavior that would wither in the light of day.

The Central Intelligence Agency probably doesn't attract the kind of people I can easily identify with, particularly when there is reason to doubt its operations always serve legitimate national interests. James Still's "Miranda" humanizes the CIA while not sugarcoating the moral ambiguity in which it does its job. The Indiana Repertory Theatre production of his new play opened Friday night.

The title character is a career agent in her late 30s rebounding from a serious error in Jordan caused by her failure to discard an earlier assumed identity soon enough. Now she's in civil-war-torn Yemen, hiding behind a role working for a CIA front, an NGO sweetly named Building Bridges, designed to reach out to the youth of the Arabian peninsula nation's damaged capital, Aden. The effort, centered on Shakespeare's plays, has attracted just one regular attendee, the intellectually voracious Shahid.

Shahid is caught up in "Othello," more entangled in its verbal music and dramatic meaning than Miranda. She's being closely watched by Reed,  a veteran operative who, despite his love of Shakespeare, is more concerned with using Miranda's desperation to restore the agency's faith in her to accomplish the CIA's mission in Yemen: exposing and neutralizing al-Qaeda. Miranda's real work is to gather intelligence from a Yemeni female physician, Dr. Al-Agbhari, which she does at considerable risk. This work is like "dancing on the heads of snakes," a recurrent image in the play. (Excellent program notes by IRT dramaturg Richard J Roberts offer patrons useful information about both Yemen and "Othello.")

Reed's only Shakespeare line, as Miranda and Shahid work through the text, is thrust upon him. It could stand as a watchword for the culture of secrecy the CIA requires: "I pray you pardon me, I cannot speak." It's a response to Othello's demand that his ensign Cassio explain the drunken brawl the envious Iago has just gotten him into: "How comes it, Michael, you are thus forgot?"

Reed is not so much a target of malignant intentions as Cassio, but he's up against scrutiny by his boss, the station chief Lauren. Like many workplaces, the CIA gets habitually entangled in office politics; unlike other organizations, such struggles play across a world stage and are matters of life and death. In espionage, the work of protecting personal and professional
Alexander Ridgers' lighting, Ann Sheffields's set, and Linda Pisano's costumes are marvelously coherent in "Miranda."
secrets tends to overlap, a fact of life the playwright skillfully underscores.

'"I am not what I am," Shahid quotes more than once, fascinated by Iago but wanting to play Othello. Manipulating people to expose who they really are is the key to survival in a civil war as well as in a spy agency. Later in Shakespeare's play, while hearing Cassio's plea for reinstatement as Othello's ensign, Desdemona concedes about her husband's suddenly suspicious nature: "My lord is not my lord." Things, as so often in Shakespeare, are not what they seem. His canon should be required reading in the agency's training.

Dr. Al-Agbhari and Miranda struggle to understand each other.
Still's characters are nimble and supernally articulate. Besides those named, there is a brief early scene with gossipy ex-colleagues of Miranda's that serves to sketch in the encounter in Jordan that nearly ended her career. Such intelligence goes well beyond the kind summed up in the CIA's very name: Shahid, Reed, Miranda, and Lauren, and Dr. Al-Agbhari are all dazzling intellectually. Sometimes their brilliance threatens to slide "Miranda" into George Bernard Shaw territory, where what characters say seems to be heightened by what the playwright wants to say about the topics his drama raises. Still is surefooted enough as a dramatist, however, to keep the dramatic situation foremost.

Henry Godinez directs a cast that displays coruscating authenticity as these people: Jennifer Coombs in the title role wears Miranda's personal history in various degrees of hiddenness and evident pain. Her CIA career is a way of processing her brother Jack's death in the North Tower on 9/11. There is no turning back from the sense of mission that event has given her. Coombs' performance was vividly set against Arya Daire's Dr. Agbhari, a woman whose pain is starkly current as she seeks to serve Yemeni women whose culture prohibits them from being treated by male doctors. Daire walked the line expertly between the doctor's self-control and despair at her practice's threatened survival.

Mary Beth Fisher is the tough, judiciously tender Lauren as well as the gabby Rose, whose chumminess caused Miranda to let her guard down in Jordan. Torrey Hanson as Reed is the stalwart officer with a checkered career history, whose steadiness has an edge to it compounded of job stress and closeted sexuality. In the Jordan scene, he mastered the bluff British self-assurance and world-weariness of agent John in counterpoint to Rose's suspect effervescence.

Especially winning was Ninos Baba's performance as Shahid. So emotionally invested do we become in this character that his disappearance late in the show makes us long for him in the last scene. Sure enough, there he is. The United States' habit of cutting its losses seems to have marginalized him as the Americans are transferred and the doctor's help has borne fruit. Shahid's stature is enhanced, and the note of hope struck is enduring. Still has made it worth clinging to, despite the continuing horrors of the civil war in Yemen.

Along the way, the difficulties faced by federal employees who put their lives on the line — whatever our doubts about the policies that may have placed them there — are portrayed in ways that are hard for most of us to appreciate. Certainly, the President did so only vaguely in his speech at CIA headquarters just over two months ago (doesn't it seem like years?). You may remember  he stood before a memorial wall and bloviated about his popularity, the dishonest media, and the wonderful people starting to serve his administration. I couldn't help thinking about Trump often during "Miranda," as much as I'm trying to limit my obsession with No. 45.

I prefer to remember Miranda's admiration for Shahid in the final scene, and how what she has to say there recalls that she shares her real name with the magician Prospero's daughter in another Shakespeare play. For all his virtues, Prospero is an imperialist in microcosm, a control freak raising his daughter in isolation. Her encounter with outsiders shipwrecked there opens up new possibilities, parallel to what Still's CIA agent has discovered in her short-lived Yemen assignment.

"O brave new world," runs Miranda's famous line in "The Tempest," "that has such people in it."


[Photos by Zach Rosing]