Friday, February 17, 2006

Review of "A Map of the World"

Burning Coal Theater Company, Seby B. Jones Auditorium ,
St. Augustine’s College, in Raleigh
February 9 - 26
Review by Michael Munger

Muhammad Ali was a student of the sweet science, perhaps the greatest boxer in history. But he also has a philosophical bent. He once claimed that "Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change."
The map as a representation of truth is at the center of the Burning Coal Theater Company’s excellent production of David Hare’s “Map of the World.” And Roger Smart’s direction sets the main characters on each other in a way that makes boxing seem tame.

This small production is an example of how theater, when it works, is the most involving and the most interesting of the performing arts.

Any map is a work of fiction; has to be. The attempt to take a complex, multidimensional reality and push it down onto two dimensions necessarily tramples truth. There are famous controversies over the distortions in Eurocentric map projections. In the Mercator projection, Greenland looks to be about 4 times the size of Australia. But the “truth” (and here I’m making little finger quotes in the air) is that the ratio is reversed: Australia is more than three times as large as Greenland.

Does it matter? The standard projection isn’t wrong, exactly, as much as it is an accurate but fictional portrayal. If you look carefully between the lines of latitude, you can see that the scale is distorted, but intentionally so. Our Mercator maps reveal meaning, to be sure. But the meaning revealed is an insight into the mind of the user, not the world itself.

The dialogue in this play is involving, sometimes riveting. I found myself jotting down snippets, because the interchanges among characters work both at the level of exposition and at the level of poetic expression. Neil Shah is excellent as central protagonist, Victor Mehta. It is tempting to think of Victor simply as a conservative, and perhaps he is. But in some ways he is simply a probing, obdurately skeptical mind, impatient with the formulas and formalities of the international aid community. His central message is spoken early, and lightly: “It is hard to help the poor.”

Victor is hard on nearly everyone. He claims, “There is no word in Hindi for eavesdropping. There is no need. All the men speak too loudly.” He calls Marxism “dictatorship’s fashionable décor.” He criticizes another character, Peggy Whitton, for remaining invulnerable behind the “safety of beauty.” And he lambastes the tide of American liberals seeking authenticity in poor countries as “a marriage of the decadent to the primitive.”

But Victor, like all the major characters in the play, grows. There is an uncomfortable sort of self-awareness to these proceedings. The play-within-a-play, invoking the device in Hamlet used to exposit secrets in the real world, is here inverted. The actors playing actors are changed by recounting of the story they thought they already knew.

Victor Mehta’s opponent in the verbal pugilism at the center of the play is Stephen Andrews, played crisply by Brendan Bradley. Andrews concedes some of Mehta’s claims, allowing that the rules governing aid may demean and emiserate those who were supposed to be helped.

But he answers, “Still.”

Still, we must try. Andrews’ challenge to Mehta the public intellectual fits neatly inside the attack on Mehta the private writer. Only hermits are lonlier than writers, and only hermits take more satisfaction in isolation from how others might map the world. Liberals, Andrews points out, really do feel indignation as an end in itself. Still, we have to try.

The problem with Mehta’s conservatism is that it ends up being philosophical skepticism; Mehta claims “That won’t work,” not because he knows it won’t help the poor but because he thinks the poor are beyond help.

But Mehta sees himself as a friend of the poor, or at least someone who understands, in a way that indignant, red-faced foreigners never could. Forcing the South to caper and sing for a share of the wealth of the North means that those who are helped hate their helpers. Forcing developing nations to trade dignity for free rice, some surplus vegetables, and truckloads of used clothing accomplishes nothing but elevating indignation into a cause where “something” was done.

There is a lot going on in this play. The energy of the main characters, and the contributions of the rest of the large cast, leave you breathless. Given the volume of words, and the potential for confusion that the play-within-a-play device always creates, the whole here is surprisingly consistent.

“A Map of the World” is definitely worth seeing, and thinking about, regardless of what you think about the perverse possibilities and noble failures of aid to the developing world. Is continuing the fight for the dream of a new map enough? Or, as Bruce Springsteen asked, “Is a dream a lie, if it don’t come true? Or is it something worse….”


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