A war photographer struggles to separate images she shoots from the reality it depicts
By Lee Juillerat for Ashland.news
It’s thought-provoking, challenging and complex. Those attributes alone make “unseen” worth seeing, but it’s all that and more.
The West Coast premiere of Mona Mansour’s play is among the season openers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Although the play is set in Istanbul and deals with the Syrian civil war, “unseen” carries added poignancy because it echoes current events in war-ravaged Ukraine.
The play’s central character, Mia, is a professional Time magazine photographer stationed in the Middle East, where she’s “documenting” the miseries of war in Syria. As “unseen” bounces between the past and present, sometimes unacknowledged, unseen incidents that have and are influencing Mia’s life and mental condition unfold.
The play is mostly set in Istanbul, Turkey, where she’s recovering after being found passing out in the midst of a field of dead bodies in Syria, where she had been photographing results of bombing that left many innocents dead. As the play unfolds, the pervasive, haunting fears and hidden memories that mold Mia’s life are gradually revealed.
At one point, the mother of a child killed by the bombing asks Mia if she can “see” — not simply “document” — what she is photographing. A recurrent theme is the question: Can Mia separate the images of death and despair she views through her camera from the impacts of endless tragedy on innocent civilians?
What happens to Mia is foreshadowed during a flashback when she is hired as a combat photographer by a woman who had the same job. As she cautions Mia, “If you’re shooting conflict, you have to find a way to not really look or it will all start to sink in.”
Because it’s performed in the Thomas Theatre, “unseen” creates a sense of intimacy that it might lack in a larger venue. That intimacy helps immerse audiences in the fast-paced story.
The play’s creative team, led by director Evren Odcikin and assisted by lighting designer Solomon Weisband, composer and sound designer Avi Amon and projection designer Kaitlyn Pietras, create an environment enhanced by sets, sounds and lighting. And because it’s presented in a single one-hour and 40-minute act, with sprinklings of humor, “Unseen” generates a sense of unbroken momentum.
The trio of actors are unerringly superb. As Mia, the photographer who tries not to be traumatized by the psychological impacts of the people and scenes she photographs, Helen Sadler evokes her character’s range of cascading emotions. Nora el Samahy takes on triple roles as Mia’s girlfriend, Derya, and is unflinchingly convincing in smaller parts as Salima and Alissa. Likewise, Caroline Shaffter is equally effective as Marian and Nancy, but especially as Mia’s understandably concerned, lovingly ditsy mother, Jane.
If it was a film, “unseen” would be R-rated because of language, violence and sexual content. Those factors, however, do not dominate the play, but are well-blended and integral aspects that mostly enhance the sense of painful, ugly realty.
As mentioned, there’s an unplanned urgency in “unseen.” It’s impossible to not draw parallels with the events in the play and the horror in Ukraine. As Odcikin writes in her director’s notes, “easy happy endings are not possible for this play or in life. As we started rehearsing, the war in Ukraine took over the headlines — with terrible bloodshed continuing to rage in places like Palestine and Yemen with little attention paid. Photos, narratives, outrage, and apathy flooded our media. Suddenly, our little play was at the center of the American zeitgeist.”
The play’s title, “unseen,” refers to emotions, experiences and feelings its characters, especially Mia, might wish were not experienced, not felt and, most of all, left unseen.
Email freelance writer Lee Juillerat at firstname.lastname@example.org.