Beyond the Mirror
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 18, 2005
Beyond the Mirror, the result of an extraordinary theatrical collaboration spanning three years, thousands of miles, and two radically different cultures, is the most stirring, affecting, and significant event of the theatre season, at least in this theatregoer's eyes.
Consider it: four performers from Afghanistan, a country we invaded just four years ago, are here in America, working with members of the New York-based Bond Street Theatre to share stories of their own lives and experiences and those of their countrymen and -women, in their own words, in their own language, in their own theatrical and musical vocabulary. The courage required to do this—a dangerous and fearful proposition on a number of levels—is breathtaking. I always say that people who work in the world of independent theatre do so only because they have something compelling and important to impart to audience. These remarkable performers, who have journeyed more than 6,000 miles to bring their play to us, exemplify that idea, and reinforce the great power of theatre to break down barriers and bring people from different cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds together. That they stay after each show for a half-hour talkback with the audience reveals still more about the nature and level of their commitment. How many Afghan people can be visiting the United States at this moment? We are honored to host these guests from Kabul's Exile Theatre. The thousand or so people who will actually take advantage of this opportunity to see and hear them during Beyond the Mirror's three-week run at Theater for the New City are privileged beyond measure.
The play itself is modest, surprising, fascinating. In a series of brief scenes, the last four decades of Afghan history are spotlighted. The styles of storytelling vary—some of the vignettes are movement-based, others take the more familiar shape of skits or ten-minute plays; there are filmed sequences and even some pieces performed with shadow puppets. All are accompanied by glorious music, mostly written and performed by Quraishi, a musician from Kabul who taught himself the rubab, an ancient Afghan instrument resembling a lute. Other sound, including evocative percussion, is provided live by American performer Michael McGuigan.
Which brings me to the American half of this collaboration: Bond Street Theatre, led by Joanna Sherman and including actors Seth Bloom, Christina Gelsone, and McGuigan, met the members of Exile while working in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 2002. Together, the companies decided to create a theatre piece that would bring some of the Afghan experience to the rest of the world. Beyond the Mirror begins with the Soviet invasion of 1979, and continues through the eventual withdrawal of the Russians a decade later, the long period of unrest that followed, the emergence of the Taliban in the 1990s, and the invasion by the U.S. after 9/11. The material is presented as objectively as it's possible for ruinous tales of war to be presented: Exile is careful, for example, to remind us that although the Soviets brought great destruction to Afghanistan, they also brought certain benefits, such as opportunities for international stardom to Afghan TV/film star Anisa Wahab, who is one of the actors in this show.
Filmed interviews with Afghan civilians (not actors, just ordinary people who have lived through some extraordinary events) are invaluable. And some of the theatrical devices here are stunning. The attack on the World Trade Center, which led to the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, is depicted here with breathtaking simplicity: two actors stand in silhouette behind a scrim. mime being "struck," and then slowly crumble silently to the ground. A scene set during the Taliban era in which a baby accidentally steps on a landmine—silent except for some heart-rending "baby talk" voiced by Gelsone, is one of the most devastating moments I've experienced in the theatre. Credit—heaps of it—go to Sherman and her Afghan counterpart, Mahmoud Shah Salimi, for staging Beyond the Mirror in a way that both honors the Afghan theatre traditions from which it is derived and makes them accessible to American audiences.
I can't imagine living through the catastrophic devastation that has characterized Afghan life for the past 30 years. Yet the final message of Beyond the Mirror is fundamentally of human resilience and hope. Salimi told the audience, in the talkback session after the performance I attended, that Afghanistan is ready to remake itself, by itself. Americans often take our freedoms and privileges for granted. There are important lessons for us—in liberty and tolerance and essential humanity—to be learned from this potent play. This singular and very special experience is one that every concerned citizen of the world needs to partake of.