Zeitgeist Stage production gives world issues a personal identity
From the very first moments, Zeitgeist Stage’s production of “Faceless” puts the audience in an awkward position of both judge and jury. The show follows the trial of Susie Glenn, a white Muslim convert accused of terrorism, prosecuted by Claire Fathi, a black Muslim lawyer. The case that unfolds mirrors the frightening state of the United States today and asks the audience to render a verdict on what it means to be American.
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Ashley Risteen, who plays Susie, believes uneasiness is essential to discussing these important issues. “Theater is meant to discomfort the comfortable,” she says. “That’s what makes ‘Faceless’ so valuable.” Risteen’s Susie is confused, frustrated and at times infuriatingly naïve. She’s a grieving teenager drawn astray by a boy’s promises of affection. It’s a story old as time, only this boy is a member of ISIS, and Susie is in a lot more trouble than Shakespeare’s Juliet.
Contrasting with Susie and her cry for love and attention is Claire (Aina Adler), who really would prefer to be invisible. As a black Muslim woman used to persecution of all kinds, she’s at once indignant, angry and unsure if she’ll live from one day to the next. Claire’s situation represents the push and pull of the struggle for gender and racial equality. Every day she gets to fight in the courtroom for a more accurate representation of Muslim people, but she has to do it under the instruction of a male boss who violates human resources rules left and right. Two steps forward, one step back.
“Faceless” is as much about relationships as it is about terrorism and race relations. The intimate cast allows for exploration of the way each character treats the others. “Humans are really complicated, and in turn their actions are complicated,” says Risteen. “Americans like to have neat boxes for things, and that’s just not the case.”
It’s clear from the quality of the performance that this play spoke to the actors. Their passion and vigor comes through in every line. Periodically throughout the performance, Claire and Susie pray, positioned across from each other, Claire speaking Farsi and Susie English. They stand confronting one another, two women feeling rejected by their country and their circumstances, united, if only for a moment, by a common faith.
Despite the complex problems presented to the audience, the deep humanity of each character brings some of the biggest issues in our contemporary world to a personal level. “There are so few places that we can go and laugh openly and cry openly,” Risteen says. “Theater is a communion.”