Terror is an anguishing fact of life in the 21st century. When violent acts claim the lives of revelers in a nightclub, marathon runners, worshippers in a church or mosque, travelers waiting for luggage at baggage claim, the psychological impact ripples out, disrupts, lingers — which is the point of terrorism.
In 2015, German novelist and lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach tapped into that collective unease, wedding it to a hot-button issue in his country, to write the courtroom drama “Terror.” Produced in multiple countries, an adapted version of the play is getting its United States premiere in a production by Miami New Drama at Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre.
Working from an English translation and with the playwright’s permission, Tony Award-winning director Gregory Mosher gave “Terror” a resonant American makeover.
The male German pilot is now a female born in Puerto Rico and raised in Tennessee. A hijacked commercial flight with 164 souls on board is now headed for a crowd of 50,000 watching an Atlanta Braves game at Turner Field rather than a German soccer stadium. The events that led to the trial we’re watching happened in Florida and Georgia, not Europe, and that close-to-home scenario is potentially more involving.
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If you’ve seen the ads for “Terror,” you know that the play’s gimmick is this: The entire audience serves as the jury, voting at the end to decide the guilt or innocence of the pilot who defied orders and shot down the plane with a Sidewinder missile, killing all aboard in order to save thousands.
That isn’t a spoiler, by the way. The facts of the case are detailed at the beginning of the proceedings, acknowledged by all including the defendant, Air Force Lt. Diana Salazar (Mia Maestro). The playwright and adaptor-director Mosher wants the audience to put themselves in the pilot’s shoes. Would you — could you — cause a loss of life to save more lives? Is that playing God, particularly if you’re ordered not to take that action? What are the moral blacks, whites and grays of this particular tragedy?
“Terror” raises all sorts of interesting, difficult questions. But the production at the Colony isn’t as compelling as it might be. It’s as if the “drama” part of “courtroom drama” has been contained in order to emphasize cool military control.
As the pilot, Maestro, a fine actress with extensive credits in movies (including “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Frida,” “Savages”), television (“The Strain”) and theater, is brought into the courtroom in shackles. The handcuffs and chain are physically removed, but her Lt. Salazar remains contained, unemotional, matter-of-fact. That’s credible behavior for a highly trained fighter pilot, but it constrains some of the play’s dramatic potential.
Tony-nominated actress Maria Tucci portrays the judge, eschewing a robe for a chic black outfit as she navigates back and forth from narrator/instructor to character. Her balancing act is made more challenging by the unusual courtroom setup, which places some audience members onstage as jurors, forcing her to turn stage left, stage right and downstage as she addresses the several hundred people who will decide the pilot’s future.
As the prosecutor Ms. Nelson, Tony nominee Pascale Armand must serve up some ludicrous examples of moral dilemmas to witnesses (not her fault), and on opening night she visibly paused more than once as she fumbled for lines (her fault). Playing defense attorney Mr. Bigler, Peter Romano generally hews to the cool tone of the production.
In addition to Gabriel Bonilla as the matter-of-fact court officer who gets to say “all rise” when Tucci enters, two other South Florida actors are part of the “Terror” company. Carbonell Award winner Gregg Weiner plays Col. Charles Brook, the officer on duty when Salazar made her fateful decision, and in his testimony, he lays out facts with clipped military precision. As Mrs. Meiser, the angry widow of one of the passengers aboard the downed Delta flight, Rita Joe brings valuable emotional depth to the proceedings.
Precisely what sort of courtroom and trial we’re witnessing in “Terror” isn’t specified, though the play seems to be taking place in the court of public opinion. Yes, everyone votes to convict or acquit at the end, and yes, the vote usually turns out a certain way (visit the play’s English-language website http://terror.theater/cont/inhalt/en for more information on worldwide audience sentiment).
The fact that Miami New Drama is creating provocative, multicultural theater for South Florida’s diverse audiences is significant. And the questions raised in “Terror” are undeniably important and thought-provoking as we go forward in a fractured world. But ratcheting up the drama might make the play land with far greater power.