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A CurtainUp Review
Palace of the End

The torture jail was a fairytale castle, from long ago where the king had lived--we had not liked him either, he was Saudi but he was nothing compared to Saddam. The gardens were tended by a master gardener, a true genius of nature. And so the castle was called The Palace of Flowers. Until the Dark Age. When it became The Palace of the End. — Nehrjas Al Saffarh
Palace of the End
Heather Raffo as an Iraqi woman in Palace of the End
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
Everyone should be grateful to the Epic Theatre Ensemble for bringing to New York Judith Thompsonís Palace of the End under Daniella Topolís direction. Thompsonís new Iraq war play which won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize this year is a chilling look at how war destroys and irreversibly damages, people. The three monologues, all based on a real individuals, each of whom has lost a life or career (or both) are the human stories behind the media headlines.

Though Palace of the End doesnít hit its full stride until the last monologue, it would be wrong to dismiss the first two monologues as lightweights. All the pieces are loosely tethered together and the play ends in an astonishing tableau with tje characters onstage. Besides, you know something is going on in the theater when you can hold an audience spellbound for 100 intermissionless minutes.

The first character we meet is 23 year-old Lynndie England. She is sitting at a desk rubber stamping a hefty stack of papers. An American soldier from West Virginia, she is 9-months pregnant and awaiting trial for military misconduct involving prisoner torture and abuse. Playgoers who have followed the Iraq war will immediately connect her story to the infamous photographs from the Abu Ghaib prison. But itís enough to know that Lynndieís military career is in a downward spiral. If convicted and sent to prison, she will lose everything, including custody of her newborn.

Lynndieís vulgarities and systematic repression of serious human thought and emotion are momentarily halted after she places her order for a KFC chicken burger and diverts her attention longingly to the computer screen, forgetting her undone busy work. "Donít do it donít do it do not google yourself, girl" Lynndie advises herself, only to succumb to browsing the latest stories on her scandal. To be sure, she is not mumbling away into her own navel here. Instead, the computer screen forces her to look her soul. Her attempts to give answers to the scathing accusations, which include her ordering of naked prisoners to build human pyramids are lame and simply don't wash. The excellent Teri Lamm who plays Lyndie makes no attempt to soften the pathological imagination of her character.

Rocco Sisto as Dr. David Kelly, a 59-year-old Welsh U.N. weapons inspector who became an intelligence source to the BBC, presents a sharp shift in tone. Sitting on Harrowdown Hill with a bottle of water and empty pill container nearby, he quietly invites us to witness his suicide. Sisto doesnít overplay the inherent drama of this tragic event which took place in Oxfordshire in 2003. Moreover, his Kelly is clearly not trying to elicit our sympathy. Sisto is most impressive in portraying the unswerving confidence of Kelly who had been through a dark night of the soul prior to arriving at his suicide decision. Sisto not only creates a nuanced psychological portrait of Kelly, he also infuses his character with a genuine warmth. The playwright is in fine dramatic fettle in presenting Kelly's complex backstory. She smartly has him anticipating the questions raised by his suicide. ("Oh, yes, remember that mousey British scientist Kelly? He killed hisself. Remember? He was the weapons inspector who got himself into all that trouble blabbing to the BBC? Saying there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, calling Tony Blair a stinking liar--they found him, dead, in the forest.")

The heart of the play lies (or rather throbs) in the final monologue featuring Heather Raffo as Nehrjas Al Saffarh, the hauntingly beautiful Iraqi woman who arrests our attention with the story of her sonís death. Raffo completely disappears into the role of the woman who possesses the true soul of a poet. In the final tableau, without thunder-and-lightning rhetoric, Nehrjas looks compassionately across the stage to Lynndie England, and a moment of redemption lives.

Granted, we have had a bumper crop of political plays since 9/11, and that Palace of the End may not add anything all that new to what we've already seen, Thompson is a passionate writer with a sharp point of view who has taken a real leap of faith here—-and landed on her theatrical feet.

Palace of the End
Written by Judith Thompson
Directed by Daniella Topol
Cast: Teri Lamm (Lynndie ), Rocco Sisto (Dr. David Kelly), Heather Raffo (Nehrjas Al Saffarh) .
Sets: Mimi Lien
Costumes: Theresa Squire
Sound: Ron Russell
Lighting: Justin Townsend
Original Music: Katie Down
Projection Design: Leah Gelpe
Stage Manager: Brenna St. George Jones
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, 212/279-4200
Running Time approximately 100 minutes, without intermission
From 6/23/08 to 7/11/08.
Tuesday @ 7pm., Wednesday @ 3 pm. & 7 pm., Thursday @ 7 pm, Friday @ 8 pm., Saturday @ 3 pm & 8pm., Sunday @ 3 pm.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on June 26th press performance
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