Torture Bearer

MTC's 'Said Saïd' a beautifully acted work-in-progress


M arin Theatre Company is to be commended. Few financially responsible theater companies in the North Bay would dare tackle a play about war, terrorism, torture, rape, cultural genocide, revenge and political dissent for fear that no one would show up. Even fewer would award a full production to a new play that has rarely been given a full production before, written by a playwright unfamiliar to local theatergoers.

So kudos to MTC for producing the West Coast premiere of Kenneth Lin’s intense, provocative Said Saïd , the story of a Nobel-winning Algerian poet at the end of his life who is forced to remember and relive his brutal imprisonment 40 years earlier, during the Battle of Algiers, when he was accused of being an anti-French terrorist. By giving Lin’s play a prominent spot in its current season, MTC is not only stepping up to artistic director Jasson Minadakis’ pledge to program more socially challenging plays, it is also contributing to the development of a writer who shows every sign of one day becoming a major American playwright.

It’s just too bad that this play isn’t better.

Ambitious, literate, angry and crammed with passion, Said Saïd is overlong and unfocused, clearly the product of a young writer, who, while a brilliant observer of human nature, is so bursting with observations, ideas and accusations that he doesn’t know when to stop writing them down.

Said Saïd has a confusing structure that, after two hours of reasonably grounded action and dialogue, suddenly takes a turn into the Shakespearean. Unfortunately, the play ultimately careens toward the overwrought, over-the-top theatrics of Titus Andronicus , which, while enjoyable on a certain Grand Guignol level, is simply impossible to take seriously. And Lin—not to mention director Minadakis and a superb, astoundingly committed cast—clearly intends this play to be taken very, very seriously.

André Saïd (Jarion Monroe, never better) carries the scars of his imprisonment on his body, in his sly, vain, life-loving soul and indirectly through the suppressed memories of his daughter, Sarah (Delia McDougall, delivering a shattering explosion of raw, open-throttle emotion sure to be remembered as one of the great performances of 2008).

Sarah, now in her late 40s and living with Saïd in Vermont, has no memory of the time her father was in prison or of the circumstances that led to deaths of her mother and brother and her own lengthy childhood hospitalization for unexplained wounds. Saïd, now quite ill, prefers to keep his daughter in the dark about their unhappy past, while enjoying the occasional flirtations of star-struck journalists and flattering female poetry students.

It is a visit from one such student, the sweetly duplicitous Emily (Danielle Levin), that triggers a series of flashbacks to his year-and-a-half long imprisonment and his cat-and-mouse interrogation by French intelligence officer Michel Garcet (Marvin Greene). Emily, obtaining an audience with Saïd on the pretense of working on a paper about him, presents photographs of the prison cell he was kept in and the mysterious, indecipherable, floor-to-ceiling writing he scratched into the cement walls during his stay.

The aging Garcet, Emily tells him, is on his way to Vermont with “proof” that the secret language contains Saïd’s confession to having been a terrorist. It is the confrontational battle of wits between these two old adversaries—and the unanticipated involvement of Sarah, once she starts remembering what actually happened to her all those years ago—that leads to Lin’s violently melodramatic climax.

On a cleverly austere set by John Wilson—complete with magically appearing and disappearing writing on the walls—Minadakis leads his actors in and out of ethical and spiritual hell, a trip that might have been more illuminating had there not been so many confusing side trips. Ultimately, MTC’s first production of 2008 works not as a finished product, but as a beautifully acted, achingly promising work in progress. Here’s hoping Lin will keep crafting and stripping away at this piece; someday, like the poetry of poor tortured Saïd, it might actually become a masterpiece.

‘Said Saïd’ runs Tuesday&–Sunday through Feb. 24 at the Marin Theatre Company. Tuesday and Thursday&–Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2pm and 7pm; also, Feb. 23 at 2pm. Feb. 13, preshow happy hour. Feb. 14, preshow lecture. Feb. 17 at 6pm, preshow reception for LGBT community. Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. $20&–$50; Tuesday, pay-what-you-can. 415.388.5208.

Museums and gallery notes.

Reviews of new book releases.

Reviews and previews of new plays, operas and symphony performances.

Reviews and previews of new dance performances and events.

Sonoma County Library