History retold in “Blood and Gifts”

“Blood and Gifts”
Through July 8
La Jolla Playhouse
Mon, Tues & Wed 7:30 p.m.
Thurs & Fri 8 p.m.
Sat 2 & 8 p.m.
Sun 2 & 7 p.m.

Extraordinary La Jolla Playhouse production a winning look at world relations grounded in Afghanistan

(l to r) Benjamin Burdick, Geoffrey Wade, Demosthenes Chrysan, Maurice Williams, Regan Linton and Ngozi Anyanwu (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

If watching the world news seems different after seeing La Jolla Playhouse’s production of J.T. Rogers’s “Blood and Gifts,” it should.

You might well ask, “How could a play about struggles in the Mideast interest me?”

Commissioned by the Lincoln Center Theater, where it made its United States debut, it was picked by the New York Times as one of the top ten plays for 2011 after receiving its world premiere in 2010 at the National Theatre, London.

In 1980, President Carter authorized $30 million in aid to rebel groups in Afghanistan, called Mujahidin. Because it was a clandestine involvement, there were plenty of covert operators. Earlier, Moscow had installed a president in the country and by 1979 there were 80,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. It was in U.S. and British interests that the Soviets were unsuccessful in the ensuing war, which lasted from 1981 to 1991.

Without taking sides, this fascinating work sets up the events that preceded 9/11 and the rise of radical Islamists. Playgoers better understand the factions involved, and the play humanizes the participants to such a degree that onlookers become involved with and care about each. Rather than a history lesson, “Blood and Gifts” comes across like a gripping spy novel one can’t bear to put down.

The covert players are a CIA agent named James Warnock; a Pakistani colonel, Afridi, who heads the intelligence branch of the Pakistan army; Abdulla Kahn, a Mujahid warlord with his base in Afghanistan where Warnock is forbidden to travel; Kahn’s minion, Saeed, who has a thing for western pop music; Simon Craig, a boozy British intelligence agent; and Dmitri Gromov, a Soviet operative.

The characters struggle with and against each other in a world fraught with arms and money deals, set in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. The CIA sends Warnock – a man with a history in Iran – to oversee the distribution of arms and funds mandated by Carter to ensure Soviet defeat.

Humor arises from relationships. The extraordinary writing, the fine acting and the staging of director Lucie Tiberghien drive the story home and make even an apolitical person want to learn more. Stakes are still high, and knowing what happened next, the denouement of the play is chilling and sad.

Warnock is brilliantly and winningly played by Kelly AuCoin, who was previously seen at the Playhouse in “A Dram of Drummhicit.” AuCoin captures Warnock’s dedication and also limns the personal issues that drive his behavior. Daniel Pearce portrays the volatile British agent, who has been away from home too long and who falls in love with his new country and its people.

Both are family men, as are Gromov, Afridi and Kahn, played with intensity by Triney Sandoval, Amit Arison and Demosthenes Chrysan. Babak Tafti is riveting as Kahn’s factotum who forms a friendship of sorts with Warnock.

The game of trust, diplomacy, deception and personality is complicated in Act II, when the action shifts to Washington, D.C. Players here are the characters Walter Barnes (Donald Sage Mackay) and Senator Jefferson Birch (Geoffrey Wade) who have the power to send the latest airborne weaponry to rebel forces.

The full company numbers 16, but don’t let that deter attendance. Many are MFA actors from the University of California, San Diego program, who acquit themselves well.

Shahrokh Yadegari provides marvelous original music and sound design. Other designers are Kris Stone for sets and projections; Charlotte DeVaux for costumes; and Matthew Richards for lighting. Accent coach and language coordinator Ursula Meyer does a bang-up job of making all the accents and dialects clear.

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