|Aina Adler & Ashley Risteen in "Faceless"|
(photo: Joel W. Benjamin)
Faceless by Selina Fillinger could not be more timely. As the playwright states, her play is first and foremost about two adversaries, both of them young women attempting “to face their fears, find their voices, and leave their marks”. 18-year-old Susie Glenn (Ashley Risteen), a recent convert to ISIS, finds herself on trial on a charge of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism. A recent graduate from Harvard Law and practicing Muslim, Claire Fahti (Aina Adler), has been engaged as the prosecution. Each is fighting a battle “to defend their morals, motives and religious freedoms”. Thus the work becomes a treatment of identity politics, and questions of faith in a face-off between two seemingly diametrically-opposed people. The resonance and relevance of the topic is somewhat in your face, but Fillinger knows how to grab an audience's attention with her compelling (if still developing) writing style. In this play her work already shows terrific promise, though it also shows some rough edges, especially in her too frequent blackouts that result in some superficial character descriptions.
Fortunately for this production, Director David Miller has a firm hand on the timing of these vignettes, and a very capable cast and crew to pull it off. His Scenic Design is simple and effective, consisting of white pillars and black furniture that create a focused playing space, and the Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson is precise, as is the Sound Design by Jay Mobley (including a pre-performance recording from the opera Hansel and Gretel). The Costume Design by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan is spot-on as well.
For the rapid fire dialogue needed for the play, Risteen (in her best role of many for this company) and Adler (a perfect foil) are great in their “faceless” encounter. (Allusion is made to how Adler's Claire doesn't want to be the Muslim “face” in the courtroom). This voyage of self-discovery also features Susie's father Alan Glenn (David Anderson, who delivers in a rather melodramatic scene), her attorney Mark Arenberg (Robert Orzalli), who she naively doesn't grasp is Jewish despite his surname, and sixteen-year veteran prosecutor Scott Bader (Victor Shopov, in yet another gorgeously tuned performance).
There is some humor (for example, Susie is referred to as “Muslim Barbie”), but mostly it's a harrowing ride with some arch text (“the only difference between a strong and a weak person is faith”, or “God can forgive me but Americans never will”). There is an overly heavy emphasis on social networking, tweeting and emoticons, too, but the playwright makes some compelling points about there being “thousands” of Susie Glenns “out there” (vulnerable to being radicalized) and one's followers being one's “family”. Despite these relatively minor flaws, Fillinger has produced a remarkable work for a writer who just graduated from her university (and was commissioned to create the play while still a student).
You have until October 7 (at the Plaza Black Box Theater at Boston Center for the Arts) to do yourself a favor and savor the writing of an excitingly fresh voice in the theater. The two protagonists of initially opposite feminist views find unexpected depths and nuances in their ultimate face-off.