The news out of the Middle East has been bad for a very long time now. It has been a hot bed of war and conflict since biblical times, with empires rising and falling, people enslaved, and tyrants in command. Paradoxically, it also happens to be the cradle of civilization—agriculture, writing, architecture, poetry, political organization, and so much more. Leaving antiquity behind, a zoom to the middle of the Twentieth Century brings us to the Iranian conundrum and the roots of how things got so messed up over there. Little Fish Theatre’s extraordinary production, Operation Ajax, an historical drama of the first order, helps in understanding this part of the knotted situation of the Middle East.
Written by the award-winning playwright, Matthew Spangler (The Kite Runner), along with co-playwright and actor, Farshad Farahat, Operation Ajax is the story of how, back in 1953, the CIA, in cahoots with Great Britain’s MI6, plotted the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, and installing the playboy Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in political power.
The issue that fostered this upheaval was Mossadegh’s nationalization of the petroleum industry that was controlled by Great Britain’s Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later known British Petroleum, or BP), that country’s primary source of oil, and of course, profit, of which Iran received about fifteen or sixteen percent. The plot by Great Britain and the United States was also fueled by fear of a Soviet intervention, a very real possibility with the USSR’s southern-most Socialist Republic, Turkmenistan, at Iran’s northern border. It was fraught times with the Iron Curtain firmly in place and the Korean War still raging.
With a superb cast of five protean actors playing thirteen roles of real and imagined figures from the events, director Suzanne Dean crafts a taught, fast-paced, thoroughly entertaining political thriller. Christian Haines plays the boozy, CIA operative, Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, who is heavy-handed and essentially amoral. And, yes, he is Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson. Farshad Farahat takes the roles of principal character, Mustapha, a coiled snake of a man who acts as Kim Roosevelt’s quietly seething sidekick, as well as making appearances as Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, the Shah of Iran, and Nazi general, Fazlollah Zahedi. Cylan Brown brings a certain nobility to his role as the honest State Department functionary, Roger, with quick turns as a waiter and reporter. Andrew Oliveri, as British General Walter Bedell Smith, creates a fierce, military man with stiff posture and a short fuse. He also plays U. S. Ambassador, Loy Henderson. And Rachel Levy, with an impeccably posh British accent, plays British scholar, Anne Lampton, who was key in arguing for the overthrow of Mossadegh. She also plays the svelte, mysterious Canadian smoothie, Kate Bentley, who is more than she seems to be.
In Little Fish Theatre’s intimate playhouse, Suzanne Dean’s set design creates different locales for the play’s action with a high platform and a sliding panel and minimal, easily moved set pieces. Terrific projections by Brad Caleb Lee are vital to the creation of a coherent narrative, as is the sound design by Cinthia Nava. Rounding out the production team are Diana Mann, costumes; Allison Mamann, props; Scott Walewski, set construction; painter, Grace Avery Wolcott; Co-producer/painter/projections tech, Sara Haddadin; and dramaturgs, Matthew Spangler and Farshad Farahat. Caroline Benzon manages the stage with smooth aplomb.
Operation Ajax, an unalloyed triumph, continues through October 27 at Little Fish Theatre, 777 Centre Street in San Pedro.