…  How could we have let this happen … ?

Entering the theater, you find a full floor-sized map of Iraq with all the now familiar city names written in and, at one end, a 20 foot high arched structure like an ancient Babylonian gate.  All is bathed in a desert sand color and there’s immediate archeological appeal. The audience toes the map on three sides of this stunning theatrical set.

The play takes place mainly in Baghdad, and the gate is the Assassins’ Gate, an entry point into the Green Zone through which Iraqi translators, office personnel and others who went to work for the Americans passed daily. This play is their story.  The trajectory is tragic, from their initial optimism at Saddam’s fall and elation over their prized jobs with the Americans through the fast-growing danger of attacks by insurgents who saw them as traitors and spies.  From their early illusions of unity with the Americans to awareness of betrayal: the Americans left them out to dry.

How could we have done it?  This is an important story and affecting drama by George Packer, who adapted his New Yorker magazine article about these Iraqis into a book, and then, still not having fully expunged what he’d learned, wrote Betrayed as his first play.

Betrayed occasionally slips from drama to exposition, back story the author feels we need to know, perhaps a journalistic residue.  I also found his treatment of the female interpreter, Intisar, who refused to wear the head scarf and dreamed of riding through Baghdad on a bicycle, disconcerting.  Of two male and one female interpreters on whom the story centers, she’s the one to die, and quite early in the game, leaving the dramatic field all to men, Americans and Iraqis, for the rest of the play:  an ironic fate for this symbol of the liberated Iraqi woman.

The characterizations are uneven:  Prescott, the interpreter’s boss is more the naive American than he needs to be (you have to agree with the Ambassador that he may not be cut out for the Foreign Service), while other characters, including the three Iraqi interpreters, are more three-dimensional. The acting also is uneven: Intisar’s expression of her powerful response to reading Emily Bronte is particularly moving.  But all in all, the production fulfills the brutal political, historical and human truths that fire this play.  We all should know this story.

The Aurora Theatre Company’s Betrayed plays at the Alafi Auditorium in Berkeley, California, extended run through March 8.

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