nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
February 9, 2008
If you can allow theatre to not operate in tidy narratives; if you can embrace the notion that pain does not necessarily have a cohesive path between cause and effect, then the swirl of scenes that comprise Sand will easily sweep you in. Ably presented by the Women's Project, this emotionally impressionistic piece is a subtle and disturbing tour through the disintegrating reality of an Iraq War solider. While its elusiveness sometimes impinges on the production's ability to connect, Sand achieves an unsettling communication of losing hold of sanity during wartime.
Justin, a young soldier (Alec Beard), is deployed along with his superior Armando (Pedro Pascal) somewhere in the desert to guard a gas station. He is not entirely sure why he is there—either in terms of what he's supposed to do or how he got there. His days limp by in a tour of duty that is unutterably dull, yet occasionally is explosively impacted by the constant unidentifiable dangers around them. There are sudden visits from an Iraqi, Ahmed (also played by Pedro Pascal), whose interaction with Justin underscores all the uncertainty and omnipresent unease of the situation. Another soldier, Keisha, becomes temporarily stationed at the same post while waiting for her truck to be repaired. While she becomes Justin's buddy, her arrival also evokes memories of his sister. Increasingly the details and perceptions blur, lines that were firmly drawn become hard to find until the mind's hold breaks in a horrifying way.
To achieve this disintegration, Baldwin has created a piece composed of shifting scenes with unexplained time frames. In this construct there is intermittent confusion as to where and when things are taking place. The structure makes Justin's experience palpable as his tour goes on. However, it also makes it difficult to stay with the piece. With each new scene comes a moment of "where are we now?" While it makes character sense that within the fractured perception of Justin's mind these scenes are the moments which stand out, at times I needed more bearings. Initially the play implies the situation is just Justin and his commanding officer. Then other soldiers and events are mentioned, but it is unclear as to how that information made it to Justin—are they actually part of a larger platoon based on that site? By bringing in emotionally significant detail from the greater world of the war, my awareness went past the staging and generated unimportant but distracting questions. Exactly where is Keisha's truck being repaired? Is the platoon involved in the attack close by or is it "here"? Without connection to it, when either Justin or Keisha is forced to react deeply onstage to off stage experience, they seem to be more reporting on the circumstances of the Iraq War rather than what is happening between and to them. It is as though a fundamentally impressionistic piece has been made to carry actual detail to justify being a "war play."
Yet Sand is a powerful piece despite that weight. It has guts for trying to make the unstable solid enough to witness. The interplay between characters and how things are understood is engaging. Especially fine work is being done by Pedro Pascal, whose subtle and defined differences in status as well as voice for both Armando and Ahmed keep the other characters on their toes. When the piece calls for Armando to become Ahmed, the transitions are fluid and intelligible, adding a lightly executed style that allows the shifts to occur without impeding the play. There is a stunning sound design by Daniel Baker and clever, evocative lighting by Traci Klainer, which embed the sequences in a sensory world. Their work is delicate but strong design that frames this script and the experience of the production wonderfully.
It is a tough balance to make an unfathomable experience comprehensible, and this production of Sand is a worthwhile balancing act.