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Human Terrain
by Jennifer Blackmer
Directed by Lori Adams
Mustard Seed Theatre
August 29th, 2014

Wendy Greenwood, Melissa Gerth Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Wendy Greenwood, Melissa Gerth
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre’s new 2014-2015 season is filled with new plays, with the one exception being their upcoming encore performance of last year’s critically acclaimed All Is Calm. To start the season, the company brings us a story that turns out to be even more timely than the author may have planned. With top-notch casting and dynamic staging, this show presents the story of a cross-cultural friendship and all the issues that stem from it in a compelling way that is sure to make audiences think about the very real issues it presents.

Human Terrain is so-called after a real US Army program, although the story is fictional.  As Dr. Mabry Hoffman (Melissa Gerth) repeatedly states, she is not a soldier. She’s an anthropologist, embedded with a US Army unit in Fallujah and trying to learn as much as she can about the locals and how they think, in turn advising the Army about local concerns.  The play is framed in flashback, with Mabry detained by Federal authorities and being questioned in connection with a bombing in a public marketplace.  As Mabry is prodded by the initially detached agent, Kate (Dawn Campbell), the story of the events leading the the bombing unfolds, including Mabry’s relationships with the unit’s Captain (B. Weller) and the soldiers in his unit, including the thoughtful Detty (Taylor Campbell) and the more caustic, gung-ho Harrison (John Clark).  Situations get more complicated after Mabry meets a local woman, Adiliah (Wendy Greenwood) and forms a gradual friendship, as well as having to deal with the tense situations of attempted bombings and the questionable interrogation methods involving a local young man, Kemal (Antonio Moseley). As the events leading up to the bombing unfold, Mabry increasingly questions her situation and the challenged presented by conflicts of interest between her personal goals for her job and those of the military.  In the course of telling the story, cultural issues are also dealt with, particularly in the form of Mabry’s conversations with Adiliah, who challenges Mabry’s Western assumptions concerning her way of life.

As a new play, Human Terrain is mostly well-constructed, and the flashback structure works very well, althoug the play does have its issues, in that some of the situations are predictable, and some characters are presented as somewhat simplistic contrasts, such as “nice” solider Detty and “mean” soldier Harrison.  The character of Adiliah is also a bit overly idealized and given something of a mystical, almost superhuman aura, even though Greenwood gives a wonderful, affecting performance in the role.  She has a very strong presence, and her scenes with Gerth as Mabry are fascinating to watch.  The most compelling character is Mabry herself, portrayed with strength and compassion by Gerth, who presents the character’s increasing uneasiness in her job, as well as the dilemma of her growing friendships with both Adiliah and Detty in a thoroughly convincing way. The complex performances of Weller as the Captain and Dawn Campbell as Kate are also memorable, and Taylor Campbell is thoroughly sympathetic as Detty.  Clark, as the zealous Harrison and Moseley as the conflicted young Kemal give convincing performances as well.

The experience of this show is powerfully aided by the excellent staging and technical work.  John Stark’s meticulously detailed set is used to great effect, as the central “office/interrogation room” set piece slides back and forth into place as needed, adding to the dramatic effect.  There are also great costumes by Jane Sullivan and impressive lighting design by Michael Sullivan and sound design by Zoe Sullivan.  All of the technical elements of this production come together seamlessly to add to the increasingly tense atmosphere of the the production.

This is a show that’s going to give viewers a lot to think and talk about, especially in light of the ever-present tensions in Iraq and increasing issues of cross-cultural conflict in an increasingly global society.  It also poses some very important questions about the working relationships and conflicts of interest between civilians and military, especially in wartime situations. As presented in Mustard Seed’s impressive staging, Human Terrain is a memorable theatrical experience as well as a compelling call to thought and conversation in these increasingly complex times.

Melissa Gerth, B. Weller Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Melissa Gerth, B. Weller
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

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