The soldier is silent. This frustrates the woman who is not exactly his captor but not his keeper either; she works for the motherland, which disapproves of his silence. If he doesn’t begin to speak, she tells him, “both of us will be shot dead. Is that what you want?”
This, on the surface, is the story in “9 Kinds of Silence,” which is some kind of allegory about war and totalitarian/military/theocratic societies, although the audience is left to piece together uncertainly the answers to basic questions, such as who, what, when, where, and why. Far clearer, and more rewarding, is the riff promised by the title: Though not directly enumerated, and more often implied than spelled out, we are encouraged to contemplate silence in some of its many uses and meanings – shock, prayer, rest, resistance, accusation, disgust, repression….silence as metaphor.
Writer and director Abhishek Majumdar, an Indian theater artist and professor at NYU Abu Dhabi whose plays have been produced on several continents, is largely silent about who his two characters are; we don’t even learn their names. In the program they are called Mother (Hend Ayoub) and Son (Joe Joseph), but they are not related to one another; she’s the mother of a different soldier, apparently lost in the war. He’s a son presumably of a different mother waiting to welcome him home, if he makes it home, after a stint in the war.
Mother does all the talking in the first hour of this 80-minute play. Periodically, she answers the telephone, reassuring her superior that all is well and the soldier is beginning to speak; she also tries to prove herself a loyal bureaucrat by uttering such canned phrases as “To be our glorious selves again, our dear leader has eradicated the silence inside us.” Other times, in apparent moments of more candor with the Son, she coins new aphorisms, such as: “We, the mothers, we live the war thrice over. Once on our own, once with you, and once again becoming the memory of the war.” She subjects the Son to the lessons from the “professional manual for training returning soldiers to belong” – which are to reproduce nine kinds of sound, including singing and laughing (a comic moment in a play that has few of them.)
One could charitably interpret the two characters as universal; uncharitably as generic. Similarly, one can consider the play that they are in lyrical, or abstract, or vague. The lack of particulars is hardly novel – it’s practically a theatrical genre — and when it works it can make a play resonate with a sense of hidden depths. In a political play, the approach can suggest the disorientation and menace inherent in a totalitarian regime. But it can also feel like lazy writing.
If I found too much of Majumdar’s writing in “9 Kinds of Silence” to be murky, he at least partly makes up for it with the precision of his directing of this Playco world premiere production. Set and costume designer Jian Jung helps establish a mood and a sense of place with the sandy-floored bunker, divided by a loose sheet hanging from the ceiling that divides the room, but also cleverly intersects with the horizontal bunker window – to form what looks like a cross, craftily illuminated by lighting designer Emma Deane. Florian Staab’s busy and expert sound design – of a fog horn, a squawking bird, barking dogs, ocean waves, the suggestion of a the rumble of war – perhaps offers the loudest commentary on the issue of silence. Hend Ayoub as Mother makes what she can of her long taxing monologue, but what does it say about the power of silence that Joe Joseph is the one who mesmerizes…until he begins to speak.
9 Kinds of Silence
Playco at 122CC 2nd Floor Theater through October 7
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $10 – $100
Written and Directed by Abhishek Majumdar
Set and costume design by Jian Jung, lighting design by Emma Deane, original music and sound design by M. Florian Staab, dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke
Cast: Hend Ayoub as Mother, Joe Joseph as Son.
Photos by Cindy Trinh