by Mike Hoban
‘Faceless’ – Written by Selina Fillinger; Directed by David Miller; Set Design by David Miller; Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design by Jay Mobley; and Costume Design by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan. Presented by the Zeitgeist Stage Company at Plaza Black Box Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St. Boston through October 7.
There’s a lot going on in ‘Faceless’, the riveting new courtroom drama now making its New England premiere at the BCA’s Black Box Theater. For starters, there’s the specter of Islamic terrorism, the religious intolerance it has spawned, and the effect of social media on our decision-making process from the current topic file, along with the time-tested themes of screwed-up family dynamics, dealing with grief, and blind political ambition lurking in the background. If it sounds like Faceless covers a whole lot of territory in 90-minutes, it does – but director David Miller and his talented cast take the ambitious material and deliver an emotionally charged production that succeeds on most levels.
Susie Glenn (Ashley Risteen) is a (very) white, middle-class 18-year old facing trial for conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, following a whirlwind Facebook romance with Reza, a member of the Islamic State, whom she met while responding compassionately to a tragic photo on Twitter with the hashtag of #ISIS.
So is Susie really a radicalized American terrorist, or just a lovesick teen making horrible decisions? That’s the job of the federal prosecuting attorney Scott Bader (Victor Shopov) and Susie’s defense attorney Mark Arenberg (Robert Orzalli) to battle over in court – and presumably in the American media.
Bader hires Claire Fathi (Aina Adler), a hijab-wearing, American-born daughter of Iranian and French immigrants fresh out of Harvard Law School to prosecute the case. When she first meets her new boss, she’s fawning in her admiration for him, at least until he opens his mouth, and reveals that she’s been selected not for her Harvard pedigree but her hijab, despite her obvious talents. She initially tries to beg off the case, before realizing that she has the opportunity to be the face of Islam to a watchful America in this high profile case, and reluctantly accepts.
When the two women first appear in court, Susie sees Claire across the room and begins frantically waving at her while mouthing the traditional Muslim greeting, “As-salāmu ʿalaykum” to what she believes is her sister-in-faith. Claire is horrified, later exploding to her boss at the implications of prosecuting “Muslim Barbie” while also dealing internally with her disgust with Susie for co-opting her faith like a new hairstyle. The defense is having its own cultural issues, with Susie completely oblivious to the fact that her lawyer is Jewish and may have trouble listening to her defense of Islamic jihad. At one point she asks him, “Do you think I’m crazy?” And when he responds, “I’m praying you are,” we understand that that expectation is rooted in more than just a defense strategy.
On top of the criminal prosecution, Susie and her father Alan (David Anderson) are also grieving the loss of her mother, a Chicago cop who was killed while responding to a domestic violence call. The scenes between Susie and her EMT father (as well as one involving Alan and Claire) are among the most resonant of the play, possibly because he is the most fully developed of the male characters, and there is little interaction between the two women. But it is the performances of the two female leads (both veterans of multiple Zeitgeist Stage Company productions) that make Faceless such a compelling production.
As Susie, Risteen gives the best performance to date of the half dozen productions that this reviewer has witnessed (which have largely been comic or comically-flavored roles), combining a childish naiveté that one would expect from a teenager with the character’s surprisingly mature spiritual transformation. And she is equally as good in the flashback vignettes where she is first seduced by Reza over the internet as when she takes control of her own defense (and life) in later scenes. Adler, too brings a real depth to her character, as Claire has no trouble standing up her sexist and xenophobic boss with a combination of confidence and rage, but lets us see how – under duress – the events that have shaped her own life chip away at her professional confidence and faith.
Shopov brings his patented smarmy A-hole persona to the one dimensional role of the politically ambitious prosecutor, but no-one does it better, as evidenced by his gleefully matter-of-fact line reading of “Big brown men, little white girls? It doesn’t matter. A terrorist is a terrorist.” Orzalli is convincing as Suzie’s lawyer, and Anderson is heartbreaking as the guilt-ridden blue collar dad, particularly when he totally loses it in the play’s most emotionally impactful moment.
For such an emotionally charged play, there’s an awful lot of humor, much of it of the dark variety, especially when skewering the emotional impact that social media has on the lives of not only young people but adults as well. Watching Susie fall for Reza as she recites the dialogue she is typing (including punctuating her sentences with “happy face” when she uses an emoticon) beautifully captures the way that many people (fortunately or unfortunately) communicate and make decisions today. And watching the sense of pride Susie experiences as she watches her “followers” pile up following a Twitter post is priceless – as anyone who’s ever posted anything on social media anticipating “likes” can attest.
Faceless is a well-written (especially considering this was the 23 year-old playwright’s first produced work) and superbly executed production, and it’s really worth seeing, both for its timeliness and for its universal themes. For more information, go to: www.ZeitgeistStage.com