Fell's Point Cabaret Theatre presents an ambitious 'Saddam'


"Saddam," a scathing satire on war that delivers a powerful dramatic punch, is having its world premiere at the Fell's Point Cabaret Theater through June 16.

A work-in-progress, this play by Philadelphia writer Michael Elkin is based on hypothetical events inspired by the Persian Gulf war. Cleverly and perceptively written, in its present state "Saddam" has the bare bones of a potential hit.

The action takes place in a sealed room in Baltimore that, like an H. G. Well's time machine, travels through the fourth dimension to locations in Riyadh, Tel Aviv and New York.

Surrealistically portrayed by an excellent all Equity cast, the play, which endeavors to present both sides of the conflict, probes in absurdist theater fashion the uselessness and waste of war.

America's preoccupation with the six-week war as the ultimate TV spectacular is also on trial. In his play, Elkin asks the question -- when does wrong become right? Not long ago those now wearing black hats wore white.

Elkin's unusual concept is flecked with humorous contemporary allusions. Then, in a sizzling stand-up comedy routine the humor turns dark and deadly. As nations collide Armageddon looms on the horizon.

Bigotry rears its ugly head in the person of the self-righteous American protagonist, a lawyer (Chuck Muckle) comfortably watching the war on his TV. A declared "patriot, he is convinced this is a "just" war and that God is on America's side.

"Does God only speak English?" wonders one of Elkin's characters later.

The TV incidents are unfortunately never shown. Only the audio is heard. At a crucial moment a prominent network newscaster (Steve Grojahn) steps out of the set and announces to the stunned American in sonorous anchorman tones, "Welcome to the war." Off they go to Riyadh.

The two are soon joined by a young Iraqi soldier, the strongest character (Aasif Mandviwala) in the play. He says he hates Saddam but had to fight or die. And, so, he tells his harrowing story to the world via the evening news.

The anchorman then whisks them off to Tel Aviv where an Israeli (Mihran Guian) comes into the picture. He and the Iraqi proceed to enact the age-old conflict between Arab and Jew. The American is brought into the heated arguments and each vehemently believes his country is doing the "right thing."

All the while the newsman watches in cold, amused detachment. His only concern is the ratings. Suddenly the room and its occupants are transported to New York where a female representative of the United Nations (Laura Sebastian) ineffectively tries to mediate the trio's differences.

At one point they all debate the assassination of Saddam -- who should kill him and the morality of it all.

This play cries out for special effects. The lighting and set are totally inadequate. Multimedia is needed here with a giant TV screen showing the audience frequent shots of Saddam (he never appears) crossed with significant Gulf war happenings. Through this huge screen the characters can impressively enter and exit.

Each apartment should symbolically reflect its location and have, perhaps, a window wall that strikingly reproduces the particular city. The ending of the play must not fizzle. It should be stupendous.

Also, the American character does not work as a lawyer but should be a more average Joe. (Lawyers are trained to see all sides of the argument). Also, the United Nations character could stand substantial development.

Tim Weinfeld has done a very capable job of directing. Although obviously a good actor, Chuck Muckle as the American does not seem to connect to his typically macho American image.

Grojahn, Guian and Sebastian are all fine in this riveting production, but it is Mandviwala whose wonderfully passionate performance makes us see the other side of war's ugly face.

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