Sedef Ecer’s On the Periphery hasn’t evolved past its life as a staged reading. Her noble intention is to document a humanitarian crisis rather than to dramatize it. The actors seldom react to each other. Instead, they’re burdened with pages of expository prose. Ecer informs the audience about the terrible conditions in the migrant slums that have been built outside of Istanbul, but most of the action takes place off stage. It’s a memory play recited by solipsistic ghosts. The story Ecer wants to tell would work well as a piece of long-form journalism or as a novel (such as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance). But in this iteration, the story is dramatically inert.
The play’s three plotlines eventually converge but to get there the actors rarely connect. They often, maddeningly, look past each other to address the audience directly. By directing them to do so, the relationships between the characters never develop. They’re interrupted by extensive monologues that are, in total, difficult to download and then wholly absorb. And when the characters aren’t asking the audience to sympathize with their plights, a reality TV host keeps popping up and into view.
That host, Sultane (Ayla Yarkut), is dressed like a bedazzled genie who’s been let loose from her lamp. The first time we meet her it’s via a projection on a makeshift screen at the back of the stage. Her face appears like one of Picasso’s Cubist demoiselles, distorted and assembled at odd angles. She may be Turkey’s answer to Oprah Winfrey, granting the deserving poor’s wishes, but the glamour turns out to be, not unexpectedly, only skin deep.
Tamar (Leila Rosa) is a dedicated viewer of Sultane’s show. She lives in the slum with her boyfriend Azad (Zaya Kolia). They love each other… because that’s how Ecer has overdetermined their fates — not because their relationship registers as something vital and real. There’s a void in the center of the play where these two innocents exist. We learn that Azad wants to leave the slum for the West. And while that seems fine to Tamar, she appears to be more concerned with what’s happening on Sultane’s show every afternoon than in escaping from their straitened circumstances. As dramatic inventions, they’re flat. Generic orphans in need of a miracle.
Meanwhile, the ghosts of their dead parents circle Tamar and Azad. They have come to tell their origin story. Bilo (Lijesh Krishnan) and Dilsha (Sofia Ahmad) moved to the slum from the countryside. They wanted a better life despite the family warnings against the idea. Kibele (Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt) is a gypsy woman who befriends Dilsha there. Both of them are pregnant at the same time (although the playwright curiously omits any mention of Kibele’s partner).
The slum is adjacent to the city’s smelly garbage dump. There’s nothing ideal about the sheds they live in and, as migrants, they’re not allowed into the city proper. Bilo’s great hope to improve their situation is the newly built factory nearby. The good news is there’ll be plenty of jobs for all. The bad news: it manufactures poison. All three actors credibly present the parents’ stories and, given so much of their histories, begin to inhabit them.
But in comparison with The Jungle, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s play that the Curran produced last year, Ecer’s series of harrowing anecdotes feels shapeless. The Jungle is also set in a migrant camp with characters who are undergoing similar experiences of intolerance, poverty, displacement, and hunger. But Murphy and Robertson placed us in the camp. They forced us to look up close at the migrants’ specific struggles. On the Periphery leaves the audience right where the title says we are, on the outside, from a great emotional remove, peering in from a distance.
On the Periphery, through April 4, at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St. 415-626-4061, goldenthread.org