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War Story

Date: Feb 29, 2008


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"If there's a playwright he's like, he's like Chekhov," says director Pippin Parker of George Packer, the New Yorker journalist/author whose first play, Betrayed, is in an extended hit run at the Culture Project. That's pretty high praise for a first-time playwright, but Parker backs it up.

"George has this impulse to give everyone their fair share," says Parker, himself a playwright (The Gift, Assisted Living) and a founding member of the Naked Angels theatre company. "He asked many, many times during the development of the play, 'Does this sound like the author imposing something on the character?' He wanted to allow the characters to speak for themselves."

These characters had a lot to say indeed, since they were based on copious hours of interviews Packer conducted with real-life Iraqis in reporting a long New Yorker piece last year, also titled "Betrayed." His subject: Iraqis who welcomed the U.S. invasion as an opportunity to end Saddam's rule and who eagerly took jobs as translators and diplomats for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

These Iraqis soon found themselves simultaneously despised by their countrymen and mistrusted by U.S. authorities. Though they've risked their lives daily to help U.S. efforts, these Iraqi collaborators have had trouble receiving official asylum or sanctuary through U.S. diplomatic channels, let alone physical protection from U.S. troops in Baghdad.

It's one of the lesser-known scandals of the still-unfolding Iraq War, and it makes for a powerful hybrid of documentary and fiction.

"Once he had the idea that it was going to be about these characters, George started to write a play," Parker says. "It started out about 80 percent based on transcripts, and it's now about 20 percent based on transcripts."

The notion of theatricalizing the article arose during the Culture Project's hit run of My Trip To Al-Qaeda, in which another New Yorker writer, Lawrence Wright, narrated an adaptation of his book of the same title.

"My only reservation, and George's too, was that the Culture Project often brings a social agenda to the work, and might want to turn this play in a certain direction," says Parker of the venue that has indeed presented such left-leaning productions as The Exonerated, Guantanamo: Honor Bound To Defend Freedom and A Question of Impeachment. "I wanted to keep the humanity of the characters."

Once assured that the piece could take whatever political direction it needed to by Culture Project associate producer Julianne Hoffenberg, the writer and director set to work.

"I told George we could either have a very powerful play that would need current events to give it context, or he could write a play that could be done in 20 years and still hold up," Parker recalls. "George said he wanted to write a play that could be done in 20 years, and that's when I knew: OK, I can sink my teeth into that--that we could sort of hone in on the characters and let the politics take care of itself. In The New Yorker, what sticks with you about George is his ability to tap into the humanity of people who are stuck in these larger political situations."

Betrayed tells the story of three ambitious English-speaking Iraqis with slightly romantic views of the U.S. and its intentions, who find themselves in the employ of a well-meaning American diplomat in the Green Zone. The characters are composites of real people Packer spoke to for his article, one of whom is now living in the U.S., and who came to speak to the cast.

"Omer Salih Mahdi, who's now at Ball State in Muncie, Ind., came and talked to us about what life was like in Baghdad day to day," Parker recalls. In the article, Packer called Omer "Othman" to protect his identity; in the play, the Othman-based character is named Adnan. "The actors were like sponges, absorbing everything and incorporating it into their work." One salient surprise, Parker reports: "Iraqis are not completely consumed by their own tragedy; they're amazingly funny, though it's a morbid sense of humor. They're people with many different colors."

As Packer turned the article into stage drama, more and more of the material was taken out of narrative form and turned into scenes. "We pushed more and more of the action into real time--many of the speeches that were memories, you now see them unfold," Parker explains. "That was really fun for us to figure out."

They couldn't have too much fun, though.

"The only difficulty was staying attached to the reality," Parker avers. "For these people, this has real consequences. There was always the pull to art-ify and prettify and make things easy, which we resisted."

Parker says he encountered very little resistance from Packer.

"The most shocking thing was how non-defensive he was," Parker marvels. "If there's any sign of a first-time writer, it's defensiveness. We talked everything out, and he didn't use the interviews or transcripts as a weapon to hold over the process."

If Parker is to be believed, we may have a major new writer for the theatre on our hands.

"I teach playwrights, and George is miles and miles beyond," Parker says. "He has an excellent ear. He's a natural dramatist. Who knows how many plays he's got in there?"

Click here for more information about Betrayed.