Tiny inanimate figurines in dollhouse-like boxes give life — and a face — to the universal yearning for happiness and a home in “Flight” at Studio Theatre.
The main characters, Aryan and Kabir — two orphaned brothers from Afghanistan trying to forge a path to Europe — are not live actors but rather hand-painted miniature models, though that in no way minimizes the impact of their story.
We follow their arduous journey via 230 vignettes housed inside intricately crafted dioramas that scroll past audience members, who sit in partitioned booths listening to the drama unfold through their headphones.
Welcome to the world of pandemic-precautionary performance.
“Flight” marks Studio Theatre’s first foray into live theater since the pandemic began and it’s a smart setup to welcome back patrons who are still uncomfortable with the full theater experience.
But “Flight” is an experience unto itself that would be appealing with or without a global health crisis.
Cutting-edge Scottish theater company Vox Motus first staged “Flight” at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017. The play takes on added resonance with its D.C. premiere given the recent departure of American troops from Afghanistan, where an already-dire situation has now devolved into a full-blown humanitarian crisis set to trigger yet another refugee exodus.
The hybrid theater installation was directed by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison and adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Caroline Brothers’ novel “Hinterland.”
After writing about global migration for The New York Times and other publications, Brothers decided to write a novel “because I felt strongly that we needed to take another look at this most human of subjects, in a quiet space that would let us think, with politics left at the door,” she writes in the director’s notes.
We follow the subjects of her novel, Aryan and his younger brother Kabir, as they trek across Europe in search of asylum in England. Their two-year odyssey is filled with harrowing sea crossings, poverty, abuse, uncertainty and a revolving door of middle men in the business of preying on refugees.
Their journey unfolds on meticulously sculpted 3D tableaus inside boxes of varying sizes that are punctuated by dramatic sound and lighting effects.
It’s an immersive, personal, visually stunning and wholly unique experience.
But that experience has some downfalls — namely that the presentation here is essentially the star of the show, as opposed to actual performances or plotline.
Farshid Rokey as Aryan and Nalini Chetty as Kabir do an able job of voicing their characters, but headphones just don’t convey the same acting chops one might see on stage. The presentation also strips away some of the plot’s humanizing elements — not because of the lack of real-life actors, but because of the lack of detail or backstory.
Granted, such details are hard to convey during a running time of only 45 minutes, which is an appropriate length for this production.
But the show might’ve benefited from an additional 10 minutes fleshing out the characters a bit more — outside of their hopes for a better life, we know little of the brothers personally — or depicting more of Aryan and Kabir’s home life in Kabul before war and drought consumed it. After all, seeing glimpses of their old home would’ve added poignancy — and pain — to their inability to find a new one.
At the same time, the presentation reinforces the dehumanizing anonymity and unpredictable nature of being a refugee. When authorities, in the form of angry seagulls, squawk unintelligible commands to Aryan and Kabir, we sense their confusion and fear. Every time someone takes advantage of the boys, it’s a gut punch to watch their hopeful naivety die a little with each indignity.
At one point on a train where everyone looks past the brothers, Kabir asks Aryan: “Are we invisible? Do they even see us?”
At another point, when the brothers toil away on a Greek farm and Kabir again looks to his older brother for answers, an exasperated Aryan snaps: “Would we be in this shit if we were American or German?”
Perhaps more than other line, that one bites the hardest, as we realize the raw truth of it. The audience is, after all, sitting in carefully partitioned booths to safely enjoy a play. We not only hold the type of paperwork refugees would die for — a driver’s license, passport — we even have vaccination cards to cushion us from a deadly pandemic, a luxury most refugees couldn’t even dream of.
Therein lies the power of this play — that a series of boxed-in, static scenes depicting two tiny, inanimate figures searching for a home manages to hit so close to home, offering just a small glimpse into the vast disparities that define our world.
“Flight” runs through March 6, 2022, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St., NW. The production is viewed in a three-foot-wide booth and contains brief flashing lights, loud sound effects and periods of total darkness. Tickets start at $42. For more information, please call (202) 332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.
Anna Gawel is editor-at-large of The Washington Diplomat.