The Gift Theatre is a small space. From lobby to stage is under a minute’s walk. But this past Thursday, for the world premier of Mona Mansour’s play, Unseen, it was full to bursting with intensity, talent and impact. Unseen follows the story of Mia (Brittany Burch), a young conflict photographer in Turkey, who is found unconscious at the scene of a massacre, and brought back to her girlfriend’s apartment in Istanbul where she, her girlfriend Derya, played by fiery actress Ashley Agbay, and eventually her mother, try to piece together what happened.
Unseen has many layers to its story, and this is what grounds it and makes its message more clear. It isn’t just about living in a conflict zone- it’s also about people’s daily lives and relationships within it, from Mia and Derya’s troubled relationship to that of a mother and daughter, and so many in-betweens. Unseen looks at the morality of Mia’s job, the privilege of living in America, and the relativity of struggle. One of my favorite things about this story is that no character is ever really trivialized. This would have been easiest to do with Alexandra Main’s character, Jane, the doting San Franciscan mom trying to calm her nerves by shopping the bazaar. But she has her own layers, and her own traumas, revealed while she tries to get to know Derya and as she tries to help Mia piece her life back together.
The chemistry was real, and Mansour was excellent at portraying the nuances of close relationships. This brought a real power and intimacy to the scenes. One of the most affecting of these, to me, was in a moment of desperation for the couple. After a terrible fight, Mia climbs the stairs to Derya, and quietly, vulnerably, asks “Can I just sit next to you?”
This simple exchange reminded me immediately of just how fragile you can feel in the face of conflict with someone you love so much, and how desperate you can be to find the peace of togetherness again.
Mansour’s subject material is very grim, and as such, the play could have really cast a pall over its audience, but there was a great balance of humorous or lighter moments peppered through the drama. It was easy to feel genuine affection for each of the characters and their own unique struggles in the situation as the story unfolded. This plays well into the larger question of the morality of conflict reporting and photography that so troubles this play’s main character. Should these struggles be seen? Should we force ourselves to look? Or are we voyeuristically treading through someone’s most painful moments? Do we trivialize that which seems “less bad” than what we went through and avoid that which seems more than we can bear? Unseen does a wonderful job of bringing very relevant, very personal questions to the forefront and then leaving it on us to answer for ourselves. It makes you think, both about yourself and your own journey as well as about those far removed from you, and it’s what makes the play brilliant on all levels.
Set design with such a premium on space must have been challenging, but it certainly seemed effortless at Gift. Set designer Sarah Watkins created a cozy and convincing central Istanbul apartment that really provided a sense of place with great use of vertical space, as well as separate outer areas that served different purposes as the show went on. Sound was handled just as well, with impactful fade-ins and outs punctuating the actor’s scenes, at times even jolting us out of our seats.
Casting was also a strong point. Conflict photographer Mia at times narrowly avoids becoming a trope–either the unlikeable victim or the manic pixie dream girl who has a higher purpose, but Burch was able to steer her away from stereotypes and give her heart and vulnerability that lend her character depth and honesty. Similarly, Jane, played wonderfully by Main, avoids becoming the butt of jokes or simply the dopey American and instead really embodies the quiet strength of a mother trying to protect her child.
For me at least, Unseen was riveting. I was able to connect with the relationships and characters, interested in the setting, and affected by the struggles, both inside the apartment and out, while the mystery of Mia’s situation played out on the stage. If you’re looking for a powerful, affecting night at the theater, this is one to see.
Unseen will be playing at The Gift Theatre, located at 4802 Milwaukee Ave, through April 9. Tickets are $30-40 and can be purchased online or at the box office, though seating is very limited, so we recommend purchasing in advance. For more information on this show and the theatre, follow this link.