We can’t choose our environment once we’re expelled from our mothers’ wombs, but we can try to make the most of what comes after.
That’s one of the messages underpinning Borders, a harrowing spectacle written by British comedian-turned-playwright Henry Naylor.
The play follows an ambitious young photographer in the late ’90s who is struggling to make ends meet in a war zone that yields photographs no one back home is keen on printing. Played with wit, charm — and some chicly gaunt cheekbones — by Graham O’Mara, this proto-photog’s big break comes in the form of a billionaire warlord known for his penchant for luxury vehicles. (“What is he, Batman?”). This flashy jihadist turns out to be none other than Osama bin Laden, who poses for a photo so iconic that the once-neophyte shutterbug ends up waving at Katy Perry at a “retrospective” of his own work a little over a decade later. This is not so much a cautionary tale, but a striking piece of creative nonfiction in a world in which capturing human agony is both incredibly necessary and discordantly rewarded with material praise.
The photographer is later confronted by a former colleague who stayed in the Middle East and, perhaps both anguished by the toll of his work and indignant at the admiration that foregoing conviction can bring on another person, accuses him of selling out.
At the same time, in a part of the world long-abandoned by O’Mara’s character, a different kind of creative finds herself at a similar crossroads. This nameless Syrian graffiti artist uses her work to give voice to the anti-Assad “resistance” in the early 2010s. What eventually distracts her from her mission isn’t unchecked motivation, or fame, or even a house so English it should be “disappointing at sports.” She’s not that lucky. It’s love, and its mundane but terrifying consequence growing inside of her. Saving it from this bleak reality has become her new priority. Maybe then it can at least have a choice in whether or not to immerse itself in suffering, rather than just being forcefully consumed by it.
More pointedly, does she stay and risk becoming a wave-rider’s golden ticket, or does she surrender herself to the whims of the ocean itself?
Both, as it turns out. The now-coveted photographer shoves Angelina Jolie, the quintessential face of performative charity work, out of the way in favor of an award-worthy shot of the graffiti artist’s pained eyes begging for help as she reaches out through the water. Both have escaped their respective national borders, but neither has climbed out of the confines they were born into.
Our nameless street agitator is played with determined, but not misdirected, angst by Avital Lvova of last year’s Angel. Lvova is salival, bruised, and focused. You are henceforth forgiven for chuckling when her partner-in-crime and lover suggests that they get married.
During its Spoleto run, Borders is aided by Woolfe Street Playhouse’s backdrop, which can stand in for a conscious aesthetic choice or a genuinely decaying infrastructure depending on need. The third and fourth actors on stage are by far the most versatile. Two simple stools serve as everything from a hospital chair, to a car, to the violent and dark waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
With a tightly-packed script, Borders blossoms from a sometimes shaky exposition into a must-see hour and 15 minutes of cultural self-reflection.
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