Review: We Stand Together in Our Praise of "The United Nations: The Border and the Coast"

The United Nations: The Border and the Coast

Written and directed by Cameron Darwin Bossert

Presented by Thirdwing at the wild project

195 E 3rd St., Manhattan, NYC

April 5-17, 2022

Imagine petty office politics and stultifying bureaucracy, but blown up to an international scale: this is the world that writer and director Cameron Darwin Bossert explores in hybrid theater company Thirdwing's superb new live production The United Nations: The Border and the Coast. With The Border and the Coast, on the heels of the equally excellent multi-part A Venomous Color, Bossert continues to impress, with a look at the United Nations as a place in which banality and intrigue and the personal and global collide, to enthralling effect. Thirdwing's hybrid digital and live-on-stage model presents The Border and the Coast in conjunction with a digital series, The United Nations: Pale Cast of Thought, featuring one of the live production's characters, German diplomat Rudolph Schmid (Matthew Sanders), at a different point in his career. The three episodes of Pale Cast of Thought, each running between six and seven minutes, are currently available on YouTube for free, as well as on Thirdwing's streaming service (starting at $4.99 per month or $49 per year, subscriptions include access to the streaming platform and tickets to live shows; see Thirdwing's site for details of available membership packages). The cuttingly hilarious filmed episodes foreground, similarly to the live play, inaction cloaked in formalities and justified with technicalities, as well as the contrast between official diplomatic interactions and both the situations of the people on the ground and the diplomatic staff's private selves and opinions.
The United Nations: The Border and the Coast focuses on three pairs of characters. Higher up in the organizational hierarchy are Rudolph and no-nonsense Russian Agata (Yelena Shmulenson), newly promoted into an overwhelmingly male realm, both of whom represent their nations at meetings of the U.N. Security Council. Lower down the great chain of international diplomatic being are translators Diane (Kelley Lord) and Conor (Ryan Blackwell), whose relationship extends outside of work hours; and members of the department of Deliberation Synthesis Fatima (Arya Kashyap), who chafes at her inability to make an impact in her current position, and Pesh (Arif Silverman), a transplant from the very different culture of Big Tech. Rudolph, in addition to feeling a similar disaffection to that of Fatima, is simultaneously dealing with an ongoing personal crisis. When Burkina Faso suffers a military coup, Rudolph sees an opportunity to actually make a difference, and Agata offers to cut an unofficial, off-the-record deal to help him achieve his goal, a proposition that will engender difficult choices for more than just Rudolph.

Rudolph at one point calls the U.N. an "abattoir of common sense," and The Border and the Coast certainly highlights the organization's paralyzing bureaucracy (the word "war," for instance, is verboten and the use of "condemn" versus "deplore" an object of debate, while Fatima is rebuked for using unapproved stickers in her work area), its widespread hypocrisy, and the belatedness of its actions, not to mention the specter of imperialism by other means. The narrative also calls attention to the continuing effects (and echoes) of more than a half century of often-violent history in the U.N.'s present-day operations. However, amidst the cynicism bred by this environment, there does persist in some of the characters a measure of optimism and the desire to do good. The play neatly calls attention to parallels between the personal and global, such as asking in both contexts whether silence means consent, about the distinction between moral and social authority, and whether freedom and stability are mutually exclusive. Agata, in one of the production's nods to the current conflict involving her home country, calls out a hipster barista, whom she assumes to be pro-peace and inclusion, for his individual hypocrisy in supporting a certain nation's military efforts. And in a brilliant sequence that spotlights such parallels, Diane and Conor's dialogue functions both as their own conversation and as a translation of Rudolph and Agata's simultaneous exchange.

The multilingualism on stage contributes to a real sense of cosmopolitanism, and the cast's performances are without exception fabulous, from the sensitively rendered complexity of Sanders's Rudolph as he struggles with himself and his role(s) to the winningly expletive-laden forthrightness of Kashyap's Fatima. Among the malaise and maneuvering of these vivid characters is to be found a lot of humor as well, some of the darkly satirical variety. Unlike in the actual U.N., all of the moving parts of The United Nations: The Border and the Coast work together beautifully.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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