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Stage Review

A stirring ‘In the Eruptive Mode’ at ArtsEmerson

Catherine Gowl in “In the Eruptive Mode.”Ahmed Masalmani

Taking the stage before Thursday night’s performance of “In the Eruptive Mode,’’ the Kuwait-born playwright-director Sulayman Al-Bassam warned the audience: “You really have to work tonight. This piece is going to work you.’’

That proved to be true enough. But “In the Eruptive Mode’’ is worth the effort.

Though it periodically succumbs to poetic excess and abstraction, “Eruptive Mode’’ frequently exerts a hypnotic spell, bringing to life the voices of women caught up in the wave of popular uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring.

When artists respond to social upheaval, the results can be important dramatic literature that pulls us out of our comfort zone and deepens our understanding of the human costs within stories we might typically experience only as a 30-second snippet on CNN. The 65-minute “Eruptive Mode,’’ which is the third recent ArtsEmerson production to focus on the Middle East, fits squarely in that tradition. “ ‘Events: They call what’s stricken us ‘events’,’’ says a woman in “Eruptive Mode,’’ her scorn for such euphemisms intensified by the fact that she has just spelled out the truth of life in her country: “war wounds and pain and shades of color that only corpses carry.’’

Half a dozen monologues are delivered by a pair of powerfully expressive performers, both clad in black: Hala Omran, who speaks in Arabic, her words translated into English via surtitles, and Catherine Gowl, who speaks in English that is translated into Arabic. Seated upstage at a tilted angle, pianist-composer Brittany Anjou punctuates their words and movements with music that ranges from ominous to lyrical.


Built around tales of endurance and survival more than triumph, “Eruptive Mode’’ is generally elegiac in tone. (Its disillusioned subtitle is “Voices From a Hijacked Spring.’’) It opens on a wrenching note: a monologue by a journalist who narrates her own gruesome death during wartime, interspersed with recordings of her earlier dispatches. The reporter is defiant even at the point of death, determined to tell the story. Titled “Vertical Vision,’’ the monologue was inspired by war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed while covering the siege of Homs, Syria.


In “Chant of the White Phoenix,’’ an actress from a minority Christian community becomes a sniper after her family is subjected to violence. In “I Let Him In,’’ an Israeli border guard dares to allow herself to see the humanity of her enemy. In “The Lament of the Young Prostitute,’’ a woman bitterly recalls the death of her idealistic doctor boyfriend when he sought to help victims of a conflict that was just beginning.

The monologue titled “Nadia’’ is a chronicle of survival and a refusal to give in to despair, even in the face of captivity and sexual abuse. It was inspired by Nadia Murad Basee Taha, who was kidnapped in Iraq by ISIS and held but escaped and won renown as a human rights activist, delivering testimony at the United Nations on human trafficking.

Theater, of course, can be another kind of testimony. In a program note, Al-Bassam writes that the journalist in “Vertical Vision’’ is “consumed by the need to bear witness to the suffering of others.’’ His stirring “Eruptive Mode’’ provides evidence that Al-Bassam is no stranger to that impulse himself.


Written and directed by Sulayman Al-Bassam

Composer/musician Brittany Anjou


Production by Sulayman Al-Bassam Theatre. Presented by ArtsEmerson at Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Boston. Through Jan. 28. Tickets range from $20-$80. 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.