Unique Theatre Project

at Chicago Actors Project

The theater practically invented the thrill of the unknown: you never know what may happen when you enter–or how you’ll feel when you leave. Maybe this time, a part of you hopes, you’ll be changed, shaken up, reminded why you got hooked in the first place. Although the odds for that are worse than in the new Lotto, you can’t win if you don’t play.

I didn’t expect much from the Unique Theatre Project’s double bill; the press release was unspecific and turgid, the set (or lack thereof) sub-shoestring. But two hours later, Fareed Al-Oboudi’s Portrait of a Suspect, for all its obvious intentions and rhetorical excess, had me changed, shaken up, and reminded like crazy. It’s a play you feel had to be written or the playwright would have exploded. Which in this case means it’s right that Al-Oboudi also directs, produces, and performs in it. You could call this a “necessity” production.

The curtain raiser to Portrait is Al-Oboudi’s translation of Iraqi playwright Maath Yousif’s 1972 Checkmate. Here Al-Oboudi plays Frederick, an apparently disturbed young man. While playing chess, he tells his companion (Ron Wells) about a terrible dream he had–of the eyes of a murdered man staring at him like a hideous prophecy. Remembering the horror of other visions of corpses, Frederick screams that if only he had had a gun he could have done something–and produces one on the spot. Frightened by this nightmare confessional, his friend produces his own gun and, shaking as he forces himself to continue the chess game, tries to placate Frederick with increasingly frantic diversions.

As the play ends Frederick’s dream is viciously, if predictably, confirmed, and the question becomes: who’s the real crazy? Al-Oboudi and Wells play the final twist with well-orchestrated hysteria, though in this tiny space Al-Oboudi needn’t be half so deafening.

In his Portrait of a Suspect, the American-born playwright wants to make an American audience taste bigotry. Not to merely sympathize with the victim but to feel the wrenching bewilderment–this is happening to me. As a synthesizer punches home the terror with appropriately unsettling music, Al-Oboudi plays the unnamed suspect, a student and American citizen of Arab descent who undergoes three harrowing, painfully similar interrogations.

As black-and-white slides depict the arrest (color ones later suggest the human side of the suspect, which the police ignore), Al-Oboudi is grilled by a couple of Chicago detectives (Ron Wells and Larry Grant). Calling him “camel jockey” and “rag head,” they accuse him of roughing up a woman on State Street and making obscene phone calls. He denies he knows the woman–he just struck back when she suddenly attacked him. But the classmate he’s dated (C. Wendell Cox in a voice-over) refuses to confirm his alibi, and the cops fulfill their own prophecy by twisting everything he says to fit their racist stereotype of Arabs.

The next interrogation happens in Syria, where the student is on vacation. Now he’s accused of photographing a military installation. But to these thugs his real crime is his passport: he abandoned his Arab heritage for selfish Western values. They spit on the “traitor” and call him a “cockroach.”

In the third and ugliest grilling, the boy is detained in Jerusalem for running–as everyone else did–from a bomb blast. “An Arab is always an Arab,” snarl soldiers who smash him against the wall and douse him with dirty water. They also mock his plea that he’s American–he’s one more Arab terrorist out to interrupt manifest destiny on the West Bank.

Between the second and third interrogations, Al-Oboudi quietly tells how he found a cat that some subhuman had just viciously blinded. He took it home, amazed to find it could still purr and sleep, and implored some medical friends to put it out of its misery. But the crime endures: “Such cruelty,” Al-Oboudi stammers out. Yet three times, we recall at the play’s end, this man without a country has undergone his own gratuitous ordeal, as in a malevolent fairy tale without a happy ending.

Heavy-handed, perhaps, and so zealous it makes its point too often, nonetheless Portrait is so passionately performed it could persuade a rock. Al-Oboudi, both as playwright and director, knows how to escalate the onslaught of police questioning until anything seems possible and violence logical. His battered student is a raw mix of degradation and dignity, a man unable to fathom why people who don’t know him think him their enemy.

Almost too loud for life, Wells and Grant play the interrogators in all three scenes. Right out of a Rat in the Skull nightmare, these cops need–as if it were a fix–to twist innocence into whatever hate image will set off their feeding frenzy; at that point every scream is just more proof they’re right.

It would be easy to fence Portrait off, to ascribe it to a young playwright’s naivete. But it’s a paltry sophistication that pretends these things don’t happen; as Wallace Shawn warned in the appendix to Aunt Dan and Lemon, don’t blame the play for the fact: the mere act of living in a world of cruelty-as-usual diminishes us all. The true naivete would be to dismiss this play as somebody else’s portrait; this Portrait is a mirror, because we’re all members of some minority, all potential victims.