Christopher Vened’s new play, Infidel, now playing at Whitefire Theatre, is set in the seething cauldron of the Middle East, in Iraq specifically, where an American scholar, John Norton (Ted Monte), an anthropologist researching the roots of written literature, is kidnapped from an antiquities museum by a band of masked Islamic terrorists and spirited off to cave used as a hideout. But before that, the terrorists take the time to destroy an ancient statue of the Bull of Heaven (played by Moses Leon Norton with a mask and great physicality). In the cave, John Norton is bound and abused by the religious radicals—the nominal leader in a khaki military vest, Zakir (Michel Wakim); a literally by-the-book mullah, Amir (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiar); the sadistic underling, Kasim (a blood thirsty Nima Jafari); and British-born Jamil, (spunky Ronak Gandhi); and his wife, Myiesha (the surprising gentle Aneesha Madhok). Much is made of the conflict between the antique gods and the demands of the Koran and Allah, which, as is well known, spurs fanatics to destroy the artifacts of the ancient polytheistic world.
Not surprising, the small group of Islamists come up with the idea of holding Norton hostage in order to receive a ransom to finance their violence. The leader phones the American Embassy to try to negotiate a deal with the ambassador (Edwin Scheibner), who balks. Mr. Monte as the American scholar has a laid back manner of delivery, but comes to life in the best scene of the play when he holds the terrorists spellbound by the stories of Gilgamesh and the Mesopotamian version of the great flood that drowns the world, a tale that may well have been set down before the writing of Genesis.
The premise of Infidel is intriguing. “Every day we hear about terrorists who kill in the name of God,” says Vened, “a concept that is impossible to grasp because most of us see it as a deed of pure evil. Maybe it’s a fantasy, but I wanted to write a play that would humanize these radicals and find a way to liberate them from their fanaticism. I saw a video in which masked terrorists were destroying ancient sculptures with huge hammers on the religious grounds that those artifacts were blasphemous idols. It made me wonder about the incongruity between religion and culture that leads to conflict. When did culture and religion separate?”
Produced by Rebecca Robertson-Szwaja and directed by the playwright, Infidel benefits from a fine creative team. The projections by Sean T. Cawelti are excellent and support the action as well as time and place. His Bull of Heaven mask is terrific. Jeff Gardner’s sound design with music of Arabian flute and oud is spot on. Rounding out the team are lighting designer Derrick McDaniel, costume designer Phoebe Longhi, props designer/set dresser Tiffany Miller, and graphics designer Leonard Konopelski.
As drama, Infidel has its moments, but the pace of the action is sometimes glacial. The actors are quite good and play with passion and skill. The problem lies with the direction. Perhaps Mr. Vened should have handed the job to someone else.
Infidel plays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through October 7 at Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks.