July 23, 2004





'Four Dervishes' is no whirl


An unhappy marriage of fairy-tale whimsy with topical scenes from the war in Iraq, "The Four Dervishes" virtually bends over backwards to fuse its disparate elements. But with few exceptions, the show's storytelling contortions are more frustrating than entertaining.


In a lobby prologue, Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton (Robert Patrick Brink) gives a blustery impromptu lecture on the fortunes of empires in Asia, North Africa and the Persian Gulf, with contemporary resonances rippling out in unexpected directions. This promisingly erudite, long-viewed opening is over all too quickly.


Once we're inside the theatre, a gauzy sandstorm strands three U.S. soldiers in the desert outside Basra, Iraq, where they'll learn a thing or two about forgiveness and cultural understanding from three jinn and an impish, Polaroid-toting saint, Al-Khidr (Amber Skalski). Meanwhile, Burton pores over books in a purgatorial library, wallowing in regret over a fateful trip to Persia.


What follows is a profoundly awkward mix of "Beetle Bailey"-level military humor, fabulist moralizing, play-acted brutality and cloying exoticism. Apart from a breathtaking shadow-puppet sequence designed by Alison Heimstead and consistently strong sound design by co-author Tamadhur Al-Aqeel, the scenes play mostly like one-note sketches without a punch line.


Aside from the maddeningly repetitive script, the main problem here is tone. Director and co-writer Katharine Noon hasn't decided what she wants from her capable actors: gritty realism, commedia clowning, stylized story theater? "I was just following orders" is the excuse one hapless soldier offers for fighting a war he doesn't understand. The actors here appear to have been given similarly muddled directives.

--Rob Kendt


"The Four Dervishes," the Ghost Road Company at the 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 8 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 8. $15 (310) 281-8341. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.