Since I haven’t visited the Roustabouts in San Diego yet, I can’t vouch for the quality of their in-person productions. I can say that their plays filmed for on demand streaming these last few weeks have been sharp and very engaging. The theater is definitely on my list for 2021 whenever I start traveling again. Earlier this season, I covered Roosevelt: Charge the Bear, which has been extended through December 20.
Also streaming on demand through December 20 is another one-actor play set in more recent times. No Way Back, starring Jessica John (An Experiment with an Air Pump), made its world premiere online at Roustabouts on November 14. Written by Mahshid Fashandi Hager, the play is based on the story of her own family fleeing Iran in 1981. In the one hour show, it’s a harrowing ordeal to cross over into Turkey as refugees and eventually reach safety in Germany.
John primarily portrays young Mahshid from the years 1976-1981. With this being a one actor play, she also seamlessly embodies Mahshid’s parents, extended family, smuggler Ali, and other characters along the way. John could change her voice and tone to capture those different personalities with ease. I never felt that anyone was done as a caricature nor did I get lost when she would switch characters.
We first meet young Mahshid when she’s about 5 years old as she fills viewers in on her playtime with cousins and listening to relatives stories. But even then, viewers can pick up hints about the instability in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Periodically there’s gunfire outside, sirens, and other noises, but despite Mahshid’s mother saying “Everything will be fine,” the chaos is coming to their neighborhood.
I found John’s performance as young Mahshid very compelling and heartfelt during the one hour play. She was quite adept at demonstrating the five years, showing the changes in Mahshid’s understanding of the situations as they developed. With each year, Mahshid helps her parents more and more, such as taking care of younger siblings. Her frustration about the violence and disruption to their lives is evident as the scenes progress, which is sensitively portrayed by John throughout.
As with Charge the Bear, Roustabouts puts forth a great team for creating Mahshid’s world on stage: a journey that includes riding a bus, walking on mountains, and running to catch a plane. The team here is comprised of Jessamyn Foster as stage manager, Tony Cucuzzella on set design and props, Joel Britt on lighting, and Matt Lescault-Wood with sound design. The set appears simple with a few wooden frames and curtains to represent Mahshid’s house. Yet, with changes in the light and sound, that space easily appears as constraining and even stifling at times.
Light is perhaps the most important signal of danger in the play, wherein bright light is menacing until the very end. Bright lights are used to represent explosions and fires that Mahshid tells the viewers about. Darkness also looms as a threat, particularly in a memorable scene when soldiers question travelers at a checkpoint by Turkey.
A slightly lower camera angle fixes upon John, while it becomes dark except for two lights behind her. The result is that her face is practically enveloped in darkness when she uses a harsh and suspicious voice to play a checkpoint soldier. It’s both disorienting and frightening. The camera work here and in other scenes is expertly rendered by Michael Brueggemeyer, director of photography and editor. There’s an excellent balance of close up and far shots to punctuate the action and the emotions on stage.
These set elements and John’s performance are finely orchestrated by director Fran Gercke. I was not surprised when I flipped through my e-program to find that Gercke has worked closely with John in previous years. Both Gercke and John co-founded Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company in 2015.
When I reached the end credits, I was hoping for more of an epilogue. What happened to one of the characters? When you watch the play, it’ll be clearer which character I’m wondering about. I’m keeping it spoiler free on that point.
No Way Back covers the tough subject of having to leave your homeland and search for a better life. Even though the story Hager shared is from nearly 40 years ago, it’s still a story that is happening today to millions of other people in the world and needs our attention.
To learn more about No Way Back, you might like to attend a Roustabouts Talkback or discussion on Zoom. The next one is on December 9 and it’s called “The Refugee Experience in America.” Check out the Past Talkbacks page for other informative panels about this and other productions.