The email popped into my box from my editor. To paraphrase: “Is it too far for you to go cover Ally Theatre’s new theatre piece in Mt. Rainer about Syrian refugees?” The irony was not lost on me: Too far to go to cover the world premiere of a play about people flung far from their own homes?
I will now testify it is not too far to travel for Dhana and the Rosebuds which is devised, created, and directed by documentary filmmaker Federica Cellini. This work is the second production of the third season of Ally Theatre Company, winner of the 2019 John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company.
Dhana and the Rosebuds centers on a young Syrian ex-pat, Dhana, played by Dina Soltan, and her search for her grandmother amid far-flung refugee camps. She is aided in her search by Julia, a journalist, played by Ally Theatre Company member Valerie Fenton. The play opens with the voices of refugees from Stockholm, and perhaps others places, who have found asylum, if not peace. The stage is bare except for rock-like outcroppings, an atmosphere well-suited to the main theater at Joe’s Emporium. The ideas, however, are big in this play and could fill a larger venue with even greater impact.
The outcroppings are soon revealed to be refugees. The effect is startling.
Inspired by a screenplay written by Cellini and Giula Corda, Dhana and the Rosebuds has been in development in collaborative workshops at Joe’s Movement Emporium and at Catholic University since May. Some of the collaborative nature of the piece works wonders; other scenes may need to be more fully explored, but the overall effect is haunting.
The heart of the work is Dhana, a layered, complicated central figure – she has grown up in London, and now lives in New York. It has been thirteen years since she has seen the grandmother she left behind in Aleppo, Syria, a center of violence in Syria’s long civil war. Dhana has also left the old ways of fidelity and piety behind—except she hasn’t.
As the play delves fully into its collaborative roots, it rises and envelops us in the suffering of loss with expressionistic, emotional dance-choruses; ghostly, dirge-like sound designs; and set pieces that pierce into the guilt and pain of Dhana. Dina Soltan fully embodies Dhana, and we are on the journey to find her grandmother with her.
When the play, however, tries to be a buddy movie between Dhana and Julia, the collaborative nature collapses on itself and becomes muddled on stage. Julia is a less developed character than Dhana—and when their head-butting relationship is centerstage, it distracts more than deepens the story.
The more telling scenes, which also beg for more exploration, in part because they foreshadow the end and feel unnecessarily truncated, are with the grandmother. The grandmother is played by Jane Petkofsky, also an Ally Theatre company member, with pitch-perfect overbearingness. These scenes flashback to the moment in Dhana’s life in which everything changes for her. The young Dhana is sensitively and beautifully performed by Mariam Hathor.
Does Dhana find her grandmother at the end? You must travel to Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mt. Rainer and discover this work on your own. The trip is not far, it is worth it, and this evocative and provocative theatre piece will take you miles.
Allison Frisch provided Assistant Direction to Dhana and the Rosebuds. The cast and the directing team worked in a true collaborative style. Notably, fight and intimacy choreography was undertaken by Chris Niebling, assistant choreography by Lauren Kieler, sound design by Asia-Twi McCallum, lighting design by Jeniffer Leon, costume design by Jessica Utz, and props and set dressing led by Ty Hallmark and Matt Ripa with assistance from Matthew Keenan, Christian Sullivan, and Gustavo Trejo.
Running Time: One hour and twenty minutes.