The Gift Theatre presents a world premiere
Mona Mansour, whose work has been seen on Steppenwolf’s stage and at the Humana Festival at Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, is now having the world premiere of her new play Unseen at one of Chicago’s most iconic storefronts: The Gift Theatre. As opposed to Steppenwolf and Actors’ Theatre’s grandiose venues, The Gift presents Mansour’s play in a truly-intimate, 50-seat theatre with seats three rows deep. This presentation places every audience member no more than a few feet from the action, drawing them into Mansour’s mystery about a conflict photographer, Mia (Gift ensemble member Brittany Burch), and what happened in the moments leading up to her becoming unconscious at the site of a massacre in Istanbul.
Design and direction keep production moving
Unseen runs just shy of 90-minutes with no intermission. Mia’s story is told through flashbacks to her early days as a conflict photographer, as well as moments in the present as her on-and-off girlfriend, Derya (Ashley Agbay), and mother, Jane (Alexandra Maine), work to unravel the circumstances of her brief disappearance.
Projection design by Brock Alter and sound by Sarah Ramos utilize a cacophony of camera shutters, apertures adjusting, and sounds from the Middle East to transition from scene to scene. Even when costume changes are required, the piece’s unit set--which features Derya’s multi-level apartment (full of useful nooks), a table set on casters, and a tree made of thick ropes--allows these transitions to occur fluidly.
Ensemble member and director Maureen Payne-Hahner also keeps the action fluid, balancing moments of high tension with subtler scenes that build character rather than conflict.
Honest acting at the core
Director Maureen Payne-Hahner’s work is made all the more fruitful by cast members who are willing to chart each character’s emotional depths.
As Mia, Brittany Burch brings a believable mixture of bewilderment, apathy, and passion to her work. While apathy and passion may seem like opposites for one character to inhabit, Burch’s work capitalizes on a piece of advice her character received early on in her career— don’t actually see what you’re shooting. At one moment, Mia blurts out that it’s disrespectful for anyone not to have PTSD, and Burch aptly captures the cracks from the weight of Mia’s occupation.
As Mia’s sometimes-girlfriend, Derya, Agbay also delivers a convincing performance, carefully walking the line between caring for someone she loves and keeping her distance from the woman who broke her heart. Jane (Alexandra Maine) invokes different aspects of motherhood as Mia’s mother and later in the play as the mother of a dead child who was photographed by Mia.
A satisfying catharsis
Mansour’s play wrestles with our responsibility to acknowledge the suffering of others as well as our responsibility to care for our own emotional well-being. Mia’s occupation places her directly in the middle of this quagmire, and Unseen treats audiences to a variety of ethical positions about whether or not she should let herself connect to the subjects of her photos, even in the face of death. Ultimately, the play illustrates the heaviness of constantly juggling these queries, leading to an illuminating catharsis near the play’s end.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Unseen runs February 10th – April 9th at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, in addition to matinees at 3:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays.
The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Avenue.
About the Author:
Editor’s Note: Brent Eickhoff is the Education and Community Engagement coordinator at Silk Road Rising, which is helping promote The Gift's production of UNSEEN and is currently hosting a reading of playwright Mona Mansour's play Urge for Going. Mr Eickhoff affirms that neither of these influenced his coverage of Unseen.