Sometimes a show is so well-done that you leave the theatre wanting to talk about it. Other you leave speechless. Pony World’s Language Rooms, written by Yussef El Guindi, which opened this weekend at Slate Theatre (appropriately located inside the old Seattle Immigrant Station), belongs to the latter category.
The production, directed by Brendan Healy, advertises itself as a dark-comedy, and the absurdist irony of the first half does illicit laughs. Ahmed (George Sayah), is caught in the familiar dilemma of American work-life, where his lack of social participation and enthusiasm for the company line seems more important to his co-worker, Nasser (Hisam Gouelim), and his over-enthusiastic boss, than his actual job performance. The humour is based on the fact that these workplace politics play out on a government interrogation compound, where Ahmed works as a “translator,” rather than an office building. Lowell Deo is both deeply unnerving and hilarious as Ahmed’s supervisor, he considers mandatory sensitivity training and the possible use of new “interrogation tools” with the same removed, emotionless positivity. Nasser and Ahmed discuss the importance of attending Super Bowl parties, memos from higher up, and upcoming performance reviews as they ferry various inexplicable items (honey, a baseball bat, chile peppers) to shadowy off-stage interrogations rooms.
The contrast is unnerving, but watching the show becomes even more perturbing as its deeper meaning comes into play, when Ahmed, a Muslim immigrant who dropped out of college to help with national security, finds his loyalties being questioned, and he moves from being the interrogator to the interrogated. Abhjeet Rane is charmingly funny and ultimately heartbreaking as Ahmed’s father, whose narration of the immigrant dream that brought him and his family from Egypt to the US, is interspersed with the main storyline. A good social critique should make an audience uncomfortable, and as the humour drops from the narrative in the show’s second half, I felt downright queasy at times. Though the uneven nature of the over-the-top antics of the first half and the blunt darkness of the second felt jarring, it wasn’t an impediment to the show’s impact. This is mostly due to the emotional range that Sayah shows as Ahmed fights for his job, and quite possibly his life. It is riveting, dumbfounding and yes, incredibly uncomfortable to watch.
Language Rooms interrogates the immigrant dream, the dirty foundation of American-life, and the concept of truth itself in modern America. Not only the extent to which we can know what’s really going on around us, but also the extent to which we can know ourselves. At one point, Ahmed pleads for the cover to remain over a tray containing the persuasive implements of his trade, and the metaphor for the cognitive dissonance required to live in a country where Guantanamo Bay remains in use and the “War on Terror” is still being fought feels like a punch in the gut. Language Rooms is not a feel-good production, but it’s certainly an important one, and the lack of resolution at the end of the conflict only serves to underline this fact. Powerful seems too trite an adjective to use, but when a show leaves you speechless, you have to make do with the words you have.
Langauge Rooms runs through May 4, references to torture make the show suitable for adult-audiences only. Tickets and more info available here.