This weekend, despite the rain, I attended a marathon. Fortunately for my running shoes, it was a marathon of theatre indoors at the Berkeley Rep -- an epic play cycle of 19 vignettes set in Afghanistan, entitled “The Great Game”. Ever been to a theater marathon? Like any test of physical endurance, it’s not for the faint of heart. You have to prepare for it. Hydrate well. Wear comfortable clothing. And above all, pack plenty of snacks.
Zero Hour: Like most marathons, this one starts with a gunshot. But unlike most marathons, the knot of men running onto the stage are wearing long robes and carrying their own guns, and their goal is no trophy, but a mural painter, Mohammad Mashal (Vincent Ebrahim), whom they drag away, presumably to be punished for his artistic endeavors.
First Lap: A scene of buglers, standing watch over the gates of Jalalabad in 1842. A feisty shepherdess, Malalai (Shereen Martineau) urges on a battalion with a poetic battle cry: “young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame”. The “birth” of Afghanistan -- or rather the birth of a butchered border, “Durand’s Line,” still a contested demarcation to this day. Of the first batch of plays, this vignette penned by Ron Hutchinson, was the most fascinating to me, and the most instructive.
Intermission: time for a nice stretch. Deep knee bends and some arm rotations.
Second Lap: A series of talking heads. A closed-door fishing session for sensitive information in “Campaign”. A king, Amanullah Khan (Daniel Rabin), becomes an unwilling exile in Joy Wilkinson’s “Now is the Time”.
Sprint: A meal break on the run, time for some major carb-packing. Hustle around the corner to the October Feast Bakery for a Bavarian-style soft pretzel. Zum Wohl!
Still going strong, the third and fourth laps pass relatively quickly -- a humorous interlude with a Russian mine-sweeper (Rick Warden), a melodramatic moment involving a hungry lion at the Kabul Zoo. Weirdly, my feet begin to hurt. Well, it is a marathon after all! Fortunately it’s nothing a pair of ibuprofen and some chocolate-coved espresso beans can’t cure.
Sprint two: A brisk stroll around the neighborhood, up Allston, back down Bancroft. Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson! On Spaulding I stop to smell the sweetest rose. But there’s no rest for the weary yet. Alas, the show must go on! And it does...
Last laps: The final series of six shorts is set primarily in the nineties and “oughts”, and therefore feels the most familiar in terms of scope and territory. More talking heads, poppy farmers, disgruntled NGO’s, and a shell-shocked soldier who can’t readjust to the civilian life. From a theatre-goer’s point-of-view, you hope the evening won’t end on this anti-climactic note, but it does. From a theatre-marathoner’s point-of-view, almost any ending after seven hours of performance is fine. And from an over-extended reader of the news’ point of view, catching up on Afghanistan now seems more of a priority than ever before.
The Great Game: Afghanistan
Through Nov. 7, $34-$54 per act
Berkeley Repertory Theater
2025 Addison, Berk.