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A powerful "Protocol"

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The sound of hollow wind rolls against the walls. Muted urban noise rings eerily: muffled voices, brakes screeching, sirens wailing. It is Music Concrete, real, found sounds incorporated with musical notes. This disturbing composition sets the mood for an emotionally disruptive play.

The Dershowitz Protocol, now running at Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, is like an intense episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Jack McCall (Richard St. George), a hard-nosed FBI interrogator, awaits Justice Department monitor Jane Cosentino. Immediately, playwright Robert Fothergill sets up a dichotomy: McCall, the old-school interrogator, and Cosentino, the by-the-book newbie. Dr. Randall Watkin (Reuben Josephe Tapp) enters to mediate the tension. Tapp, a dead ringer for Taye Diggs with a booming voice, takes control of the stage.

Fothergill was inspired by Why Terrorism Works by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. In it, the professor poses controversial questions about torture and terrorism. If a nuclear bomb was an imminent threat to an American metropolis, would it be acceptable to torture the person who held information necessary to stop annihilation?

Dershowitz ponders whether governmentally sanctioned torture, subject to safeguards, would be preferable to the backroom torture that occurs now.

With the warrant for "rigorous interrogation" issued and the subject, American citizen Iqbal Aziz, hooked into the device, the inception of the Dershowitz Protocol begins. Will Aziz be compelled to divulge?

Cosentino, played deliberately by Ruth Childs, helped to draft the Protocol, but objects to the torture, considering it a "descent into barbarity." This contradiction is confusing. Why would a person craft a protocol, only to object to its use? This inconsistency makes Cosentino a hypocrite, instead of the necessary voice of dissent.

At the opposite extreme, McCall is about flesh and blood. St. George plays McCall as gruff, without sympathy for Aziz's pain. However, he becomes manipulatively sweet when, as Aziz whimpers, McCall shushes him with the tone of a mother quieting a baby. With the pressure on, St. George turns into a raging bull, red faced, veins bulging, and spittle flying.

Aziz (J. Simmons) never appears on stage, his voice transmitted through a speaker. The removal of his physical presence also removes his humanity. The interrogators don't observe the pain they're inflicting.

The playwright doesn't address the Geneva Convention, doesn't consider the reprisals that would occur if the U.S. were to legalize torture.

The play raises profound questions of ethics and justice. Does torture work, or will a human under extreme duress say anything to escape? Do the ends justify the means?

The Dershowitz Protocolplays through Sunday, June 18, at Downstairs Cabaret Theatre's satellite location, 172 West Main Street. Tickets cost $15-$18. For more information call 325-4370 or visit www.downstairscabaret.com.

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