When a play grips your thoughts and continues to cling to them past the curtain call, then you know you’ve witnessed a treasure. The elements of 4,380 Nights blend together to generate a captivating play. Playwright Annalisa Dias and Director Kathleen Akerley have created a piece that enjoins the audience to reflect on the priorities of the United States, the cyclical nature of history, and the complexities of cultural identity.
The central plot hones in on Malik Djamal Ahmad Essaid: a man who has been held without charge at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center for 12 years. After being beaten down by constant torture and detained without hard evidence, Essaid may finally have a chance at freedom when he starts conversing with Bud Abramson, a lawyer who intends to help him.
Ahmad Kamal plays Essaid, and his portrayal presses you to feel frustrated and devastated for the character. Anger and hopelessness radiate from Kamal’s physicality and his facial expressions reveal Essaid’s broken state. His performance during a particular scene involving abuse is gut-wrenching and powerful. I admit that I teared up.
Kamal also plays El Hadj El Kaim, an Algerian man who’s working with the French military during the 19th-century Algerian War of Independence. The play switches between the past and the present as we see how Essaid’s experience parallels El Kaim’s. Both are entangled in political chains and both are urged by governments to choose between French and Algerian identities.
Dias has woven a dream-like dialogue into the play. This dialogue revolves around a character named The Woman who tells stories to The Man. Using captivating imagery, she describes historically-rooted (and, at times, disturbing) tales that string Rome, North Africa, France, and the United States together. Lynette Rathnam exceptionally plays The Woman, telling the stories as though she’s performing modern dance. Every movement is graceful and specific, strengthening the emotions behind her words. As The Woman tells the stories, we learn how they connect to Essaid.
closes February 18, 2018
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The sound and scenic designs strongly convey the feeling of being trapped. Voices and screams echo throughout the production, allowing us to experience what Essaid hears (and at times hallucinates) while he’s detained. I found myself tensing up during these haunting sounds. And upstage, a curtain of chains serves an integral role as characters creatively interact with it throughout the show.
While I love how scenes of El Kaim and The Woman are placed between parts of Essaid’s arc, I can see how they may not be a delight to all audiences. Viewers who strictly want to focus on Essaid’s experience as a detainee may not appreciate how the show splits into different threads. But at the same time, the way that these threads interweave is what makes the production’s overall plot resemble an intricate quilt. 4,380 Nights is not just about one man, it’s about how his story is a part of a global narrative. A narrative that spans generations.
4,380 Nights by Annalisa Dias. Directed by Kathleen Akerley. Featuring Ahmad Kamal, Michael John Casey, Rex Daugherty, and Lynette Rathnam. Scenic design: Elizabeth Jenkins. Costume design: Heather Lockard. Sound design: Neil McFadden. Fight choreography: Robb Hunter. Production stage manager: Julie Meyer. Produced by: Signature Theatre. Reviewed by Emily Priborkin.