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Review: ‘Son of a Dog’ at Walnut Street Theatre

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“Tawakalt ala Allah” is Arabic, and in English it means, “I rely on God”. This is the phrase that Gameel Al-Batouti uttered repeatedly as Egypt Air flight 990 went down on October 31, 1999.  Everyone on the plan was killed—including Americans, Egyptians, Canadians, Egyptian military personnel and passengers from other miscellaneous countries.

The cast of . Photo courtesy of the company.

The cast of ‘Son of a Dog.’ Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography.

Son of a Dog, by Gabriel Nathan, presents a dramatization of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) interrogation of Egypt Air officials to discover the cause of this accident. The investigation was turned over to the USA since the plane crashed in the Atlantic Ocean after leaving a US airport; the Egyptian government invited the United States government to handle it. The script for Son of A Dog is comprised of first hand documents from the investigation. The play is performed at Studio 5 at the Walnut Street Theatre, and is produced by Ashley Kerns and Gabriel Nathan, and directed by Ashley Kerns. It features five actors who play multiple parts: Jenna Pinchbeck, Barry Gomolka, Andrew Criss, Bob Binkley, and Dave Polgar. Gabriel Nathan is also the voice of Egypt Civil Aviation Authority Final Report.

Much of the script focuses on Batouti’s character and what he said in the cockpit. His family and religion are dissected and picked apart but the discussion concentrates on his sexual conduct. His misconduct ultimately had him demoted and prohibited from piloting international flights, which some believe fueled the revenge for which he deliberately crashed the plane.

Son of a Dog explores this and the possibility that he did crash the plane intentionally. It also puts front and center the cultural differences between East and West, and shows how Egypt Air refused to consider the crash as deliberate and dismissed most of the NTSB’s hypotheses regarding a motive.

The innovative set design by Apollo Mark Weaver facilitates the use of flashbacks that portray events in the Batouti case. Most of the stage is arranged as a conference room, containing tables and chairs and a stenographer chair and machine. NTSB officials are seated at one table, and the Egypt Air executives face them at another table on the other side of the room. The stenographer sits upstage center wearing headphones and typing away. Outside this room (stage left), separated by thin white beams representing a partition, is a corridor. It is between the conference room and a wall. On the wall is a partial image of an airplane. Here is where flashbacks–mini-scenes depicting events that took place outside the conference room occur.

The actors change clothes for these scenes onstage or behind the wall and become other characters. The costume changes are efficient and practically unnoticeable. In the case of the men, it may require just a change of jacket. The women characters are in either Western or traditional Muslim veil and/or chador. These flashbacks are accompanied by music or relevant sound effects. Susan Marie Benitez is the costume designer, and Damien Figueras, the sound designer.

The nuanced acting of the ensemble is the highlight of the show. They portray the NTSB and Egypt Air staff convincingly and artfully. The stenographer in the room sometimes seems to be a silent Greek chorus. Her expressions and eye movements punctuate and react to the men’s arguing. As the only female in the cast, Jenna Pinchbeck showcases her versatility in portraying a gamut of nine Western and Egyptian characters, including Batouti’s wife, a broadcaster, and maids in the Pennsylvania Hotel who interacted with Batouti.

Barry Gomolka also stands out in his role of EgyptAir Captain Mohammed El Badrawi, often dominating the room with his staunch defense of Batouti and his perception of Egyptian culture as related to the case.

Authenticity was accomplished by using actual documents (interviews, reports, cockpit voice recordings etc.) for the dialogue. This was obviously important to the playwright, but doing this made it difficult to create sympathetic and multi-dimensional characters. It also somewhat slowed the pace.

The drama inside the conference room is upstaged by the action in the corridor but the scenes in the conference room take much more time.  For most of the play, I witnessed proceedings, protocol and arguing between the NTSB and Egypt Air officials. For example, the Egypt Air executives are adamant, and argue vigorously that Batouti was “normal” in terms of his sexual behavior—next, flashback in the corridor. However, whether one believes the Egypt Air officials or not, Batouti is dead and cannot defend himself. He is only “talked about” inside the conference room. His wife is not in there either—she, Batouti, and the others that interacted with him have a small but piercing voice in the corridor.  In the play, Batouti’s only words are when he utters “Tawakalt ala Allah” as the plane goes down. We see him accosting maids and hear his wife’s words. The action in the corridor showed me what had probably happened in the past to people involved with Batouti, and on one hand, that is more than what the NTSB officials or the world got in real life, and it is enlightening. On the other hand, within the context of the play, these mini-scenes from Batouti’s life were too short compared to the conference room scenes for me to really relate to those characters. I also found myself anticipating the next flashback.

Son of a Dog, takes a controversial historical subject and brings it to life. Middle Eastern politics and culture are in the forefront of our current political discourse in the United States.

Son of a Dog is brave, thought provoking, and unique in its subject matter, and creative in its combination of report and flashback. If you enjoy challenging theatre, this is an experience you do not want to miss.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

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Son of a Dog plays through November 27, 2016 at Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5 — 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, but them at the door, or purchase them online.

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