Review: Florida Rep’s timely ‘Damascus’ takes you on a suspenseful ride

Review: Florida Rep’s timely ‘Damascus’ takes you on a suspenseful ride

Hassan is exhausted. You can see it in his eyes, in the set of his shoulders and in his short temper.

The Somalia-born man drives an airport shuttle van, and business is bad. So bad, in fact, that he’s forced to sleep in his van despite the blistering Minneapolis winter.

Then a 19-year-old white man named Lloyd knocks on Hassan’s van and insists that he drive him all the way to Chicago. And things soon get worse for Hassan.

Much, much worse.

So begins Florida Rep’s tense new thriller, “Damascus,” a play that won the Fort Myers theater’s annual PlayLab new works festival last year and has since been optioned as a movie adaptation.

It’s easy to see why this play has struck a nerve in both Fort Myers and Hollywood: “Damascus” explores a lot of the anxieties and prejudices that have been happening in America since 9-11 and, most recently, Donald Trump’s influential anti-immigration policies and rhetoric.

Hassan was born in Somalia, and his Arabic heritage — despite the fact that he’s lived in the U.S. since age 2 — comes with all the associated baggage you’d expect in this era of terrorism, nationalism and the heated battle over immigration.

And when there’s an explosion at the airport that Hassan and passenger Lloyd just left, you know exactly what will happen: People start looking at Hassan suspiciously, judging him solely by the color of his skin and his country of origin.

Did Hassan plant that airport bomb? Did Lloyd? Did the explosion have nothing to do with either of them? You’ll have to watch “Damascus” to find out, of course.

Director V. Craig Heidenreich keeps a firm hand on the suspense in Bennett Fisher’s timely play, and he applies a steadily increasing tension that soon becomes nearly unbearable. He also coaxes raw, emotional performances from his cast.

As Hassan, Darian Dauchan pulls you in with his haunted eyes and his dreams of having a successful shuttle company. And then, later, you see those fears and anxieties harden into something cold, icy and perhaps a little dangerous.

Jeremiah Clapp is equally excellent, at least the parts of his performance I could actually see (more on that later). His Lloyd is at turns cagey, child-like, completely likable, a total basket case and flat-out menacing. And you begin to wonder, ‘Who is this guy, exactly, and why does he seems to know a little too much about terrorism groups and the geography of Somalia?”

Laura Shatkus rounds out the cast by playing several different characters that, while they don’t get the onstage glory, ably set up the drama and emotions to come.

Now more about the staging of this play in Florida Rep’s ArtStage Studio Theatre. Set designer Jordan Moore and lighting/projection designer Rob Siler wow you from the start with the full-sized Ford van they somehow hauled into that tiny theater.

All the show’s action takes place in and around that van, which juts at an angle from a wall of jumbled black street-sign shapes that suggest the road with their asphalt-like color and texture. Those shapes also serve as mini movie screens for projections of street signs, the actors’ faces and more.

But here’s where some problems creep into the production. To help audiences see in both the front and back seat, Heidenreich and his crew removed all the van’s windows and some of its panels. Then, just in case your view is still blocked, they installed cameras in the rearview and side mirrors and projected live video of the actors’ faces on those street-sign shapes behind the van.

It’s all very cool. And if you’re sitting in the right place, I’m sure everything flows beautifully.

My theater seat, unfortunately, was right in the northeast corner of the theater, and my view of the van’s back seat was mostly blocked by Hassan in the driver’s seat and the van’s metal support beams. So I couldn’t see Clapp’s backseat performance at all except through the video projections.

That would’ve been fine, too, if the video worked smoothly. Not so, unfortunately. Clapp’s image was whitewashed and kind of creepy, and his lips in the video didn’t quite sync up with the actor’s words onstage. So I was forced to watch his backseat performance entirely on video, or just watch Dauchan’s performance instead.

And because of that out-of-sync audio and white-washed image, I immediately felt suspicious about Lloyd and his motives –— whether or not that was intentional on the actor’s part. There was something just … off… about the character. I’m still not sure if that came from his acting, the show’s technological flaws or both.

Of course, this is all a moot point if you have a seat on either the north or south sides of the theater, I think (I can’t be sure since I didn’t sit there). But the northeastern part of the theater is where you might run into problems.

Even so, the poor staging didn’t kill my overall enjoyment of this otherwise taut, well-executed thrill ride. And, thankfully, Lloyd only stays in the back seat about a quarter of the time, anyway. The rest of the time, he’s either in the front seat or outside the van.

And despite those problems, that van and staging are undeniably inventive and nothing like I’ve seen before at Florida Rep. Also, I really like Siler’s and sound designer Katie Low’s work on the project, from traffic sounds and the constant drone of road noise to the way the theater lights and projections work together to mimic the wash of street lights or the bright sweep of passing cars’ headlights at night.

I wish I could say more about the show’s plot and where it ends up. But there are so many twists and turns, I’d ruin it by giving too much away.

But I will say this: “Damascus” is an exciting, thrilling journey that taps neatly into our current climate of prejudice, hatred and assumptions about race and ethnicity.  If you get the right seats, this is a must-see destination for Southwest Florida theater lovers.

Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells (Facebook), @charlesrunnells (Twitter), @crunnells1 (Instagram)

If you go

What: “Damascus”

Where: Florida Repertory Theatre’s ArtStage Studio Theatre, 2267 Bay St., downtown Fort Myers.

When: Now through Dec. 9

Tickets: $49-$55

Info: 332-4488 or floridarep.org