REVIEW – We Made Bread – Arabian Shakespeare Festival

From the outside, 2901 Mariposa appears a wholly inconspicuous and almost entirely invisible building in San Francisco. On the side of this city box’s relatively unexciting exterior is an equally forgettable door, with no real signage or clear hospitality even of the raw ubran variety. It is the kind of door that from one side stirs feelings of very much being in the wrong place, thoughts of certain navigational misgivings, some gentle, premature regret and overall chilly apprehension. From the other side though, it prompts feeling of fresh understanding, warm collaboration, authenticity and the kind of quiet pensiveness that grows as a result of creative risk tasking. A building whose inside holds a fascinating story of a working artist colony – worthy of its own play – the Royce Gallery (as this tremendous converted cannery warehouse space is referred to), happens on this day to host the Arabian Shakespeare Festival; a beautiful little enigma in and of itself. The building, this company and the theatrical exchange I saw Sunday, We Made Bread, seemingly all connect thematically to the Mariposa of its physical address; for within the caterpillarian walls, transformation takes place and an unexpected butterfly emerges.

As I was escorted down the hallway of the Tardis-like space (it’s bigger on the inside) and directed to the contrastingly mouse-hole of a lobby, (feeling a bit like Alice descending into Wonderland) I was met with welcoming faces and complimentary libations, including the titular bread so central to the play. Ah… the play.

While certainly one might expect a play about the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in the early 90’s  to fall closer to the inhumane side of humanity, I was pleasantly surprised to find this was not the case. Indeed, especially given the historical circumstances at the center of this work, it is miraculously positive, upbeat and even oddly cheerful at times. What so easily could have been a violent, bitter, dark, depressive conflicted drama, instead  refreshingly gave the narrative lens a friendly, down to earth treatment, and genuinely crafted the piece from a place of peace. It does not blame or concentrate on the politics of war, nor the victimization, but rather it simply shows ways a community pulls together in an effort to cope with and survive the day to day. It doesn’t gloss over or dilute the impact or the truth and it in no way diminishes the emotion by leaving out the biggest pictures and choosing to unabashedly share its more intimate realities. This is not the ugly side of life, nor is it a sanitized passive whisper of conflict, but rather it is a delicate exposure of the strength and beauty of patriotism, quietly juxtaposed against the landscape of what is, to most Westerners, an unfathomable, literally “foreign” concept; that of military occupation.

In a way this personal, honest and kind approach to the material helps guide us to understanding far better than a play steeped in retribution and injustice. We are better eased into the personal Kuwaiti female perspective, preventing our own political allegiances, cultural ignorance and/or prejudices to infiltrate and taint the story. I very much appreciated the balanced approach to a very singular perspective.

While our singular actress was engaging, expressive, sweet and likeable, there were some character transitions that seemed less distinct than was probably ideal. The minimalist approach was very suitable in this case, the miming sufficing just fine in most cases, preventing over use of cumbersome costumes or props likely to interrupt the natural flow. While 90 minutes straight of totally new material, depicting 31 characters and just one actress is a demanding undertaking and apt to be cut a bit of slack, there were a few less polished components to this production. I wondered at parts if it benefitted from being a one woman show or if perhaps the many characters and composite voices from the dozen or so interviews collected might have been even more powerful with several faces to go with the distinct voices. It got me thinking if having one physical woman represent “all” Kuwaiti women was helping or perhaps hurting the effort to break down our stereotypes? And, while the main arc had clear direction, I felt some of the auxiliary/intertwined stories were too abbreviated and left me wanting a more. The most enchanting moments I felt were when she spoke as “herself” in the room, talking to us rather than portraying two sides of a conversation simultaneously.  I would have loved to have even more of that connection all the way through.

Bottom line, these are stories that haven’t been told, stories that wouldn’t typically ever survive outside the individual Kuwaiti consciousness. Not until now, and that right there is some of the best results you can hope for when you venture beyond your own walls. These were interesting accounts, important stories, and stories that started a bigger, even more important conversation. The play sheds some incredible light on a culture (one for me shrouded in much mystery) during a very specific period of time and there’s priceless value in continuing to foster and nurture THAT conversation. Theater can be a dynamic catalyst for change and the ASF has produced an original work that emphasizes that power. 4 out of 5 jewels in the tiara for a show that bridges gaps of knowledge, understanding and cultural experiences and does so in a phenomenally optimistic and historically responsible way. We Made Bread plays through December 20th at The Royce Gallery in San Francisco.

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