Monday, October 27, 2014

Ciphers: Spies and Lies

British playwright Dawn King's modern spy mystery Ciphers is receiving its American premiere in Philadelphia at Inis Nua Theatre, a theater dedicated to contemporary British, Scottish, Welsh and Irish theater. King is best known for her 2011 dystopian play Foxfinder and Ciphers is her most recent effort. 

Ciphers requires more suspended disbelief than I could muster and it doesn't feel like it delivers on all it promises. Foxfinder is by far a more satisfying and meaty endeavor (and worth a read since it seems unlikely anyone will be producing it here--though they should). But Ciphers offers acting and directing challenges and this indie theater company rises to the occasion on a small budget to give this flawed play a solid production.

The story is laid out in non-chronological order and its up to the audience to decipher the interconnected plot with actors playing doubled characters. Mild mannered Justine (Isa St. Clair) is hired by MI5 for her language skills and soon finds herself working in the field. However when she's found dead of an apparent suicide, and the news of her secret job becomes known, her sister Kerry (also St. Clair) commits to finding out what really happened.  Is her death related to an affair with a married man and painter Kai (J. Paul Nicholas)? Her assignment to work a Muslim contact, Karim (also Nicholas), in the local community? Her undercover role working with the Russian ambassador (John Morison) at the Russian embassy? Is it suicide or is it murder?

Despite the twists and turns of the plot director Tom Reing keeps things clear as can be in an intentionally complicated story (though one dramatic moment confused me but I think it was meant to be left unclear). Stylish and frankly lush projections by Janelle Kaufmann (some like beautiful watercolor paintings) make each scene distinct and either explicitly show where we are or creatively hint at place.  They gave this production a feeling of extra polish.  The flexible set with fold down tables and hidden cabinets by Meghan Jones makes good use of the space.

In particular J. Paul Nicholas is a stand-out in the cast. His performances as Kai and Karim are nuanced and specific. His physical presence changes with each character.  At times I almost forgot it was the same actor. He also mined the dark humor in the script well.  When St. Clair shares the stage with him her performance is enriched. In other scenes she could feel at times playing the roles on the surface (one sister is emotional, the other sister is remote) and not quite inhabiting the soul of the character. But especially when she was in scenes with Nicholas as Kai, she went deeper.

It's a not wholly effective spy thriller but a solid effort from a company focused on exploring contemporary work from the UK and Ireland.  Next up is David Leddy's fantastic Long Live the Little Knife, and I for one am excited to see that again. 

I received a complimentary ticket to attend.

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