Morocco | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Theatre M

at Sheffield's

You don't need to know much about Morocco to appreciate Allan Havis's play. In fact, I suspect it helps if you know nothing at all. That makes it easier to accept its anti-Arab premise: that a prominent American businessman's wife is arrested in Fez for what local authorities consider evidence of prostitution (sitting in a bar alone) and is then tortured, sexually abused, intentionally infected with syphilis, and kept confined while her husband is unable to do much more than visit the jail every day and blow up at the senior officer there for not letting his wife go.

Havis's play is filled with so many familiar stereotypes--the angry American, the sadistic colonel, the corrupt judicial system--that there isn't a single surprise or interesting plot twist in the first act of the play. In scene after scene, the American man rages, the Moroccan official shows surprise at the American's rages, and we learn just a bit more about what's happening to the businessman's wife.

It doesn't help that Peter Garino, who plays the American, Mr. Kempler, blows up with the same intensity at each new outrage. After a while these histrionics become predictable, and we lose all sympathy for Kempler and his plight. In contrast, Michael Childers, who plays the colonel, remains so cool, calm, and gracious under the assault of Kempler's childish rages that it's hard not to feel he's the real victim of the story.

These are performance problems. They are also symptoms of the banality and predictability of Havis's script, qualities he may have hoped to overcome in the second act by having the newly released Mrs. Kempler reveal that she may well be every bit as decadent and promiscuous as the Moroccan authorities claimed. It's even hinted--by Mr. Kempler no less--that Mrs. Kempler did indulge in part-time prostitution, to relieve her boredom.

Such a melodramatic reversal does little to jump-start Havis's story. What it does do is add yet another offensive stereotype, that of the manipulative bitch, to a play already burdened with them. Amazingly, Morocco simultaneously attacks Arabs for making women dependent on men and hints that the problem with American women is that they are too independent.

I can only suppose that director Max MacAdam cast wholesome, soft-spoken Mary Booker as Mrs. Kempler to defuse the character's less likable characteristics. Unfortunately, Booker's portrayal of Mrs. Kempler is so lacking in animal magnetism that you don't believe for a minute in the ravenous sexual desire supposedly coiled within her. Throughout the second act Booker's Mrs. Kempler is so cool and distant that it seems impossible that just an act ago she was imprisoned in a hellhole in Morocco.

I suppose a more skillful cast could have made something more of Havis's play, but not much more. This play is dramatic proof of something one of my computer-literate friends is fond of saying: garbage in, garbage out.

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