‘Blood and Gifts’ at TimeLine: Blood-soaked Afghanistan as pawn in U.S.-Russian faceoff
By Lawrence B. Johnson
With its perennial menu of plays tied to historical events and culture-changing personalities, TimeLine Theatre is always a good bet for a night of creative stagecraft. Now, with its riveting, razor-sharp production of “Blood and Gifts,” the company has raised its own bar. J.T. Rogers’ play offers a ground-level portrait of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and how that torch might have tumbled into America’s hands.
“Blood and Gifts” traces the secret efforts of a CIA operative to channel U.S. assistance to the Afghans in their bloody conflict with the Russians through the 1980s. What Rogers has created in his 2010 play is not a historical account but a historical drama, a well-researched, powerfully personalized fiction, but one that is stunningly credible in its detail, arc and outcome.
What Rogers has wrought is no one-act, 80-minute theater blitz, but an elaborately constructed work in which we come to know and (perhaps) understand half a dozen characters of several nationalities, most of whom are working at cross purposes, even when they’re on the same side.
At the center is CIA agent James Warnock, a lone wolf assigned to make contact with Afghan resistance leaders through Pakistani channels. Warnock is forbidden to enter Afghanistan, lest he reveal America’s active opposition to Russia’s presence there. But the agent arranges to meet with one of the most respected Afghan warlords, Abdullah Khan, with whom he strikes a deal: a broad stream of cash support in exchange for information about movements of the Russian military.
Timothy Edward Kane’s reticent, patient but determined CIA agent and Kareem Bandealy’s proud, suspicious but needful Khan make a compelling progression from uneasy sparring partners to mutually respectful allies to genuine friends. The agent carries out his pledge to learn to speak to Khan in his own language, and the warlord comes to trust the American implicitly.
But it isn’t that simple. That nothing about this quilt-work of regional and religious factions is simple, the exasperated British agent Simon Craig bears witness. Craig, played with booze-fueled impetuosity by Raymond Fox, knows the ropes but feels hopelessly tangled in them. He would like nothing better than to strangle the arrogant Pakistani security officer (the intractably officious Anish Jethmalani), through whom all contact with the Afghans must pass.
Meanwhile, the CIA agent has another problem: From the moment he arrives in Pakistan he’s under Russian scrutiny. His monitor has a face, a name (Dmitri Gromov) and a sense of ironic humor with a venomous bite. Terry Hamilton’s jovial Gromov is a gregarious, appealing sort. But these are war games, and an agent could get killed.
The cast of playwright Rogers’ engaging characters goes on, each one adding another layer of humanity and complexity to a web of horrific circumstance: David Parkes portrays the CIA field agent’s boss back in Washington, a tested veteran who knows that when every option will only result in more bloodshed, you just go with the least destructive.
Craig Spidle is the Southern senator who presses the flesh of Abdullah Khan when the warlord brings his appeal to Washington, and figures he recognizes a fellow creature in need. Bezhad Dabu plays Khan’s very young right-hand man as the universal kid – hot-headed, distrustful, taking big risks to get his hands on the latest American pop music album.
While funny moments relieve the pall in “Blood and Gifts,” much of the picture is impenetrably dark. Even as the U.S. ramps up its support for the Afghan resistance fighters – self-styled as the mujahedin, or “holy warriors” – the Russians ratchet up the blood-letting. Until the tide finally turns and the Soviet forces begin to withdraw, under ferocious, viciously avenging attack by the mujahedin. The CIA agent, Abdullah Khan and his comrades have won. Time for one last meeting, and a farewell cup of tea.
Between director Nick Bowling’s efficient and imaginative staging, which manages to sustain the tension over a long and circuitous course, and Collette Pollard’s open, minimalist set design – which neatly moves us from airport to night-time desert to the corridors of Washington – this production draws us in with a magnetic naturalism. Credit that as well to Jenny Mannis’ costumes and Mike Tutaj’s video projections. It is an enveloping, absorbing experience.
As for the Russian-American hand-off of the torch that is Afghanistan, well, we all know about that. But playwright Rogers puts a chilling, personalized spin on the root cause. Indeed, that is the stinger. Even the usually implacable CIA agent is dumbstruck. And we’re right there with him.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Abdullah Khan (Kareem Bandealy) appeals to the U.S. for increased aid in the Afghans’ struggle against the Russian invaders. Descending: The Pakistani intelligence commander (Anish Jethmalani) lays down the rules of engagement to British agent Simon Craig (Raymond Fox, standing) and CIA operative James Warnock (Timothy Edward Kane). The frustration wears on British agent Simon Craig (Raymond Fox). Russian operative Dmitri Gromov (Terry Hamilton, left) is staying close to the CIA agent (Timothy Edward Kane). Agent Warnock (Timothy Edward Kane, left) delivers arms to Saeed (Behzad Dabu), a warlord’s aide, and his fellow resistance fighters. Below: A Pakistani intelligence official (Anish Jethmalani, with gun) makes his point clear to British agent Simon Craig (Raymond Fox, left, as CIA operative James Warnock (Timothy Edward Kane) looks on. The CIA agent (Timothy Edward Kane, right) offers a suitcase full of cash to Afghan warlord Abdullah Khan (seated left). (Photos by Lara Goetsch)
Tags: Anish Jethmalani, Blood and Gifts, Collette Pollard, Craig Spidle, David Parkes, J.T. Rogers, Jenny Mannis, Kareem Bandealy, Mike Tutaj, Nick Bowling, Raymond Fox, Terry Hamilton, TimeLine Theatre, Timothy Edward Kane