by Beki Pineda

HONOR KILLING – Written by Sarah Bierstock; Directed by Angela Astle. Produced by the Athena Project (presented at the Elaine Wolf Theatre at the JCC, 350 South Dahlia, Denver) through September 30. Tickets available at athenaprojectarts.org.

There are many outstanding things about this stunning production. Let me list the ways. Starting with the writing. This is Sarah Bierstock’s first play and second production of the script as a result of being the chosen favorite in last  year’s play reading series at the Athena Project Festival. The writing is flawless, the dialogue realistic and clear, the story compelling. The script performs as though it had been polished and honed through years of productions. How exciting it must have been for Ms. Bierstock to see this version of her script on this big stage.

Secondly, the story being told.  It is timely and shocking. Two stories of shame ride together side by side and are slowly revealed – one which happened to the unseen Pakistani woman killed by her family for shaming them; the other by the reporter covering the story. What was the murdered woman’s crime? She married the man she chose instead of the one she had been groomed to marry chosen by her father. The disposability of women in this culture gets exposed even further as the gruesome details of the relationships within this familial group are brought forth. No one is without sin.

Third, the style of the production. Relying on current and almost futuristic technology, much of the story is conveyed through cell phone conversations, Skype projections, and live camera interviews. This production is so high tech, the program is even all digital and on line only. Tina Anderson’s sharp, smart set design keeps movement at a minimum and allows the play to move forward with little interruption for scene changes. Jen Kiser’s moody lighting creates a home for the quiet reflective moments and then brings us starkly back to reality. This mostly female production team is joined by Reed Otto whose work on the video and technical aspects of the show bring it above the norm in watch-ability and place it firmly in today’s social media culture.

And, fourth, is, of course, the acting. Director Astle has pulled together a top notch cast to tell this complicated story with clarity and strength. Leading the fray is Caitlin Conklin as the New York Times reporter covering the incident. Because of her past with the Pakistani government, she has been forced to stay behind in Dubai and cover the story from a distance. She embodies the frustration of a reporter used to being on the front lines relegated to the back room. Yet she “manages” the story by dictating who her colleague on site interviews and conducts the discussions via two way video. Her personal story is slowly revealed through phone conversations with her sister (Lisa Kraai) and confessions to her former lover. Caitlin brings an impatience and determination to her role that is compelling to observe.

She is strongly supported by Seth Palmer Harris who plays her former lover and journalistic colleague. They are thrown together again because of the demands of the story and  use their time together to analyze what went wrong for them personally  Her frantic confusion when she loses track of him after an explosion in the middle of a long distance phone conversation betrays her deep feelings despite her unwillingness to admit to them. Seth gives his role as a fellow reporter a quiet surety and confidence entirely believable to a man in his vaulted position in the journalistic world. That he is willing to take a second banana position to assist her reporting speaks volumes about his feelings as well.

Special kudos must go to Hossein Forouzandeh who serves as the on-the-ground guide for both reporters. He’s the one who knows how to get things done and who to talk to make things happen. He also takes on a second important role as a member of the murdered girl’s family who inadvertently and casually uncovers an even more revealing truth about the culture. The known victim is not the only victim. Hossein stuns with his matter-of-fact delivery of this family’s story. Without the guidance of a printed program in hand, I honestly did not know he was playing both parts until the curtain call when it was only him – so complete was his transformation. Jihad Milhem, Yasmin Sweets, and RJ Wagner also bring important components to the story as Allisyn’s collaborators, conspirators, and editor.

For a company that basically only produces one play a year, Athena Project has their act together. This is as comprehensive and professional as any production in town . . . and a compelling, meaningful and timely theatre evening.  Only two more weekends remain in the run.  Notice how I keep using “compelling” in regard to this production.  If I could, I would “compel” you to get tickets TODAY!!

A WOW factor of 9.5!!