Alec Willows in Ghosts in Baghdad

Alec Willows has been a much loved and respected actor for over three decades. I first saw him headlining the 1992 Arts Club production of Morris Panych’s The Ends of the Earth, a long and complicated play that even the most gifted actors would find very challenging. I recall Mr. Willows giving a bravura reading to that part that I’ve not yet forgotten.

Over time, as often happens, lead actors find themselves moving to supporting parts and Mr. Willows has been no exception. He works regularly however is rarely given much time in the spotlight.

When I learned that a new production of Ghosts in Baghdad by Working Spark Theatre would revolve around his character, I looked forward to seeing Mr. Willows take front and center stage again. I was not disappointed. He shines.

Vancouver playwright Michelle Deines’ Ghosts in Baghdad takes place in the neglected but still important Iraqi Museum years after the looting that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein.  

Mr. Willows’ character Khalil Najim is entrusted to maintain the much-diminished museum for visits by foreign dignitaries and not a whole lot more. He is free to walk the halls and share his thoughts and fears with objects that were old when Christ was young. He rarely leaves the place content to revel in the past, but to contemplate the intolerable circumstances of the modern city. In act two, we witness pain, remorse, and a new perspective on this man.

Sarah May Redmond, Alec Willows
[Sarah May Redmond, Alec Willows]

Kahlil is assisted by his one-time protege (and now peer) Professor Malika al-Nadi. As portrayed by Sarah May Redmond, Malika is a strong and independent woman, who can leave the still-dangerous city for lucrative postings in peaceful countries but chooses to stay. When we are introduced to her character as a grad student on a dig in a short prologue to the main action, she appears without a head scarf.

Later on however, the head scarf stays firmly in place, even when she’s working alone in the virtually deserted back rooms of the museum. We are left to come to our own conclusions as to why. Revelations surface that she’s not necessarily who she appears to be.

While you can and do feel a great deal of sympathy for both Kahlil and Malika, we are much taken aback by the appalling actions of Hamza al-Qasim, a museum security guard turned street thug who employs others to thieve for him as he tries to survive the dangerous streets of the unprivileged. Josh Drebit makes the most of his stage time as he channels his role (also that of victim) into a powerful and nuanced characterization.  

In my view, the least successful character is the marginalized street urchin Dawood (Gili Roskies) who finds refuge in the museum and who makes a turn unforeseen. Judging by a previous outing, I know Ms. Roskies to be a very accomplished actor. In Ghosts in Baghdad, she hasn’t a very compelling tale to bring to life.

I’ve purposely kept the story’s details to an absolute minimum. The main thread of the storyline pertains to the return of a lost masterwork. Suffice it to say that a range of emotions and motivations are revealed as the play progresses. I personally struggled with the logic of many of the character’s choices. Didn’t see that coming, I often muttered to myself. That said, many folks may see the play’s narrative and denouement as being entirely believable.

Alec Willows; photo by Tim Matheson
[Alec Willows; photo by Tim Matheson]

East Vancouver’s Little Mountain Theatre is a tiny space resembling an unfinished basement of a large home. All seats are good but comings and goings to the smallish 12 x 30 foot stage are a bit awkward. Three wood crates and a constructor’s portable scaffold form the main stage set. A fine bit of video projection introduces us to the play’s context and intermittently allows us to “see” the museum and what it represents.

I left the theatre wondering if the play was worthwhile. Although there is much to like, I felt very conflicted days after seeing it.

The world premiere of Ghosts in Baghdad runs through April 6 at Little Mountain Theatre. Photos courtesy of Working Spark Theatre.

About Our Contributor Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini enjoys Vancouver's vibrant theatre scene and has taken in many productions over the years. He holds a BA in Sociology from Simon Fraser University. Larry is financially involved with the film Eadweard Muybridge, produced by Josh Epstein, directed by Kyle Rideout, and starring Michael Eklund.

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