Country X is occupied by Country Y, so how do citizens of these two very different nations cope, relate, converse and otherwise interact with each other? That’s the subject of Christopher Chen’s provocative new play, “Passage,” which opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Soho Rep.
The playwright’s use of letters extends beyond these two undefined countries. The many characters have names that range from B to S, with one actor (Howard W. Overshown, wisely underplaying each role) multicast as characters named D, J, S, the Gecko and the Mosquito. All these letters sounds confusing, but shortly after you’ve figured out that Country Y isn’t Country Why, it begins to make sense.
“Passage” could be about China and Tibet, or Russia and Crimea, or maybe even the United States and Guam. Chen’s use of the letters X and Y gives him enormous freedom, and he uses it to powerful effect. That’s also true of the dozen lettered characters on stage that costume designer Toni-Leslie James has color-coded (per the instructions in Chen’s script) so that the citizens of X and Y, not to mention the Gecko and the Mosquito, are easily distinguished.
Saheem Ali’s fluid direction and use of Arnulfo Maldonado’s unique turntable set also help to clarify. In a stunning coup d’teatre, the actors sometimes perform as stagehands to spin Maldonado’s set as their actor colleagues stand or walk on the moving platform. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting adds to the movement and often charges the space with dramatic foreboding.
The first half of “Passages” moves briskly through a number of brief confrontations set in Country X: An X woman (Purva Bedi) believes that one of her X friends (David Ryan Smith) is too complicit with the Y government; a new Y émigré (Andrea Abello) soon discovers that her Y fiancé (Yair Ben-Dor), a longtime resident of Country X, has changed and not for the better; a well-known X doctor (K.K. Moggie) deals effectively but warily with various Y citizens (Howard W. Overshown and Linda Powell) living and working in her own country; and so on.
It’s a credit to Chen’s powers as a writer that each of these encounters immediately engages, and in under an hour, he establishes a wide panorama of a society under siege but still functioning. Except for the occasional protest, civility reigns.
This meandering but captivating plot quickly comes together in the second half of “Passage.” It involves an explosive incident at a holy site in Country X when the X doctor takes the Y émigré on a tour of some caves. The actor Lizan Mitchell has been the play’s host and narrator, a.k.a. G, and she tells us that this episode may recall “A Passage to India,” by E.M. Forster, but adds, “This isn’t his story but our story.”
Indeed, Chen has lifted from Forster — not only the caves but the title “Passage” — but goes to a very different place.
Too often in today’s theater, playwrights promote a culture of victimization, with everybody racing to claim his or her group as the most persecuted. The first half of “Passage” leads us to believe that Chen’s play will be another one of those. The second half completely turns those expectations upside down.
Much credit here goes to the very understated but immensely empathetic performances delivered by Powell and Moggie. Equally wonderful is the work of Mitchell. She begins as our host and narrator. By play’s end, she has become the evening’s shaman.