Alec Willows as the Iraqi Museum curator Khalil Najim in the Working Spark Theatre production of Ghosts in Baghdad. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Alec Willows as the Iraqi Museum curator Khalil Najim in the Working Spark Theatre production of Ghosts in Baghdad. Photo by Tim Matheson.

The two acts of the Working Spark Theatre production of Ghosts in Baghdad feel like two very different plays.

[pullquote]It is in the exploration of these questions and the sometimes difficult answers that are the biggest strengths of Deines’s script.  While as an audience we may not be able to fully relate to the unique motivators that her characters possess, we can empathize.  Our own questions rise as we acknowledge that we too hope we could do the “right” thing, but can just as easily understand the need for survival.  This internal conflict makes for some interesting discussions at intermission.[/pullquote]In the world premiere of playwright Michelle Deines’s Ghosts in Baghdad, which opened Friday night at Little Mountain Theatre, the first half asks what you are willing to do to survive in face of war.  While that central question might not be new, here Deines uses culture to frame that question, providing characters with different answers.

For museum curator Khalil Najim (Alec Willows) and his assistant Malika (Sarah May Redmond) it is not just about surviving, but also preserving in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  For the young Noor (Gili Roskies) it is simply about the daily struggle as an orphan of war, and for the man she turns to for help, Hazma (Joshua Drebit), it is about finding a better life for himself no matter the impact his actions may have on others.

It is in the exploration of these questions and the sometimes difficult answers that are the biggest strengths of Deines’s script.  While as an audience we may not be able to fully relate to the unique motivators that her characters possess, we can empathize.  Our own questions rise as we acknowledge that we too hope we could do the “right” thing, but can just as easily understand the need for survival.  This internal conflict makes for some interesting discussions at intermission.

But with little in the way of preparation in act one for the intrigue we are about to witness in the second, it is as if we have stepped into a very different play after the break.  Deines essentially abandons her exploration of the struggle between culture and conflict for a plot that starts to feel a lot like a Hollywood thriller.  Moving into that thriller territory results in a whole that is less than satisfying and is exacerbated by her abandonment of several sub-plots including unexplored references to Khalil’s daughter and Malika’s nephew.

As a result of this fundamental shift, director John Murphy has difficulty reining in his actors in act two.  As the play progresses some of the measured and subtle performances of the first half become way too big for the tiny Little Mountain space.

Performing inside the odd Little Mountain space with its pillars and odd shape is always problematic and this production is no different, although director Murphy helps by moving his actors into the audience from time-to-time. Projection designer Corwin Ferguson helps set some locales with photographs on large sheets at the back of the stage, but curiously the projections are not used consistently.

There is a feeling as you leave the theatre that you’ve seen two related but distinct plays.  Where personally I would have liked two acts that more fully explored some of the playwright’s headier themes, I would have also settled for a two-act thriller.

By Michelle Deines. Directed by John Murphy. Ghosts in Baghdad continues at the Little Mountain Theatre (195 East 26th Ave, Vancouver) through April 6, 2014.  Visit http://workingspark.com for tickets and information.