September 21, 2008

‘Palace’ is an Emotional Piece of Theater

By Colin Dabkowski

The best theater is not supposed to be comfortable. Like any art aimed at creating change or awareness, a play with serious guts will not only confront your perceptions but also challenge them to the breaking point.

So it is with the three relentless monologues in Judith Thompson's masterfully written "Palace of the End," which opened Thursday night at the Subversive Theatre Collective's new space in the Great Arrow Building. Thompsons's three characters are closely based on harrowing true stories, all of which violently orbit the volatile theme of the war in Iraq.

At 100 minutes with no intermission, Thompson and the play's director Virginia Brannon do not offer viewers a single chance to avert their gaze. At the end, you do not simply leave the theater; you slink away with a deeper understanding of a complex and ongoing conflict, an intense desire to know more and a deep sense of intellectual, emotional and even spiritual exhaustion.

Thompson's characters hail from three wildly disparate geographies. The first, a frightening rendition of Lynndie England, one of the U.S. soldiers involved in the horrific prisoner abuse scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib, starts things off on an awfully macabre note. England gets a less-than-convincing but nonetheless deeply disturbing interpretation by Kelly Beuth. Her monologue is a glimpse into the latent American capacity for cruelty, one that usually shrivels up after puberty.

But some, as Thompson points out, hang onto it as a salve to their inferiority complexes and hence produce situations like Abu Ghraib. "I'm pleased to tell you that them naked human pyramids," Beuth's character says, "was all my idea." She elaborates: "I was always into choreography." It's chilling, but three-dimensional enough that we can almost -- almost, but thankfully not quite -- see into England's twisted logic.

The next monologue, delivered with delicate skill by Lawrence Roswell, tells the story of British biological weapons expert David Kelly, who committed suicide after revealing his opposition to the war in Iraq and his role in helping Tony Blair make the case for war to the British people. After a heartfelt description of Kelly's tortured conscience and weakened constitution, we are made to witness Kelly's death at his own hands.

But the worst is yet to come.

The final monologue, that of the strong-willed Iraqi mother Nehrjas Al Saffarh (the compelling Dana Block), is a horrid story surrounded by a poetic package. Al Saffarh describes in detail her forced visit to the eponymous Palace of the End, a place where Baath party members took her and her children to torture them. She makes it clear that Saddam Hussein's cruelty knew no bounds, but that George W. Bush's knows no discretion: "Those who say they have come to save us have come to destroy us."

Any narrative about a conflict as complex and ongoing as the current one in Iraq will only succeed to the degree that it acknowledges gray areas. Without flinching from the obvious injustices of the war, Thompson does this incredibly well, providing glimpses even into the soul of England while defiantly criticizing the ignorant hubris she embodies.

There's an argument to be made for tying the monologues together more fluidly, to create a narrative impact (as in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film "Babel") that is greater than the sum of its parts. But as it is, the impact of "Palace of the End," could hardly be greater.

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"Palace of the End"

Presented through Oct. 19 by Subversive Theatre Collective in Manny Fried Playhouse, Great Arrow Building, 255 Great Arrow Ave.

For more information, call 408-0499 or visit

Originally published by NEWS STAFF REVIEWER.

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