Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company
Written by Selina Fillinger
Directed by David J. Miller
Review by Polly Goss
(Boston, MA) The long speeches, the scrutinization of evidence, the dissection of a person’s moral fiber in front of a live audience of 12 judging strangers, the theatrics of the courtroom have long delighted us on the stage. From Shakespeare’s Measure to Measure to Law & Order, the delicious synchronicity between real-life and make-believe contained within the courtroom keeps audiences coming back for more and more. Fellinger however breathes new life into this well-worn genre with
Faceless is the story of the “little white girl” Susie Glenn (Ashley Risteen) as she is on trial for joining ISIS and attempting to commit acts of terrorism against the United States of America. The added bonus, the prosecuting lawyer Claire Fahti (Aina Adler) is a devout Muslim, who is determined to stop Susie becoming the (white) face of Islam. Zeitgeist Stage Company have lived up to their name, in this topical and heart-wrenching tale that sheds light on the lurking threat of terrorism behind every screen.
Faceless ran the risk of being self-consciously politically correct in having the victim of ISIS radicalization be a white girl from the suburbs. Susie, lonely, angry and grieving for her recently dead mother, falls in love with an ISIS soldier she met over Twitter. Risteen’s performance artfully highlights the complexity of Susie’s character, showing her to be both the “broken little girl” and “angry young woman” that the prosecution cast as.
The most compelling dynamic is between the two central characters, Claire and Susie. Susie instantly is desperate to make a connection with the first real Muslim woman she has met, whilst Claire is disgusted by this “creepy” girl who is determined to be a martyr for a faith and people she clearly does not understand. Miller’s decision to intersperse the scenes with the two women praying opposite each other, one in English the other in Arabic, worked beautifully and served as a poignant reminder of the paradoxical nature of their relationship with each other.
Claire’s character adds depth to the play and Adler superbly shows her wrestling with her conscience throughout. Claire, the confident Harvard grad is acutely aware that her chauvinistic boss, Scott Bader (Victor Shopov), has put her on the case for her hijab, not her brains. However this case proves too potent for Claire to turn down and she seizes the opportunity to be the moral face of Islam that the media and white America too often choose not to see.
The male characters throughout the play, Alan Glenn (David Anderson), Mark Arenberg (Robert Orzalli) the defence lawyer and Scott Bader, all try and fail to control Susie and shape her narrative. Shopov and Arenberg brought much needed moments of comedic relief to this intense drama. Anderson’s heartbreaking performance of Susie’s father makes the audience and Claire question their condemnation of Susie. “They all have fathers…it doesn’t mean we are not doing the right thing”, Scott shouts at Claire as she wants to quit the case and let Glenn get his daughter back.
Faceless asks a lot of compelling and thought provoking questions about race, gender, and religion. However the biggest question it poses, ‘how can we define right and wrong – what makes one person a victim of radicalization and the other a terrorist’, it fails to answer. Whilst this ambiguity can be seen as a mechanism to provoke dialogue, for me it reduces some of the play’s power and a hesitation on Fellinger’s part that lets the rest of her writing down.
Overall Zeitgeist have produced a compelling courtroom drama that speaks to some of the most prominent fears in our society today. Faceless reminds us of the dark side of social media, of the hundreds of thousands vulnerable young people across the world, who are looking for something to believe in and find ISIS. Or as Claire puts it in her opening remarks to the jury, we must remember “humans discriminate, terror is indiscriminate”. Susie Glenn is one man’s hero, another’s victim and another’s terrorist. Faceless reminds us that terrorists always have a face, it just may not be the one you expect to see.