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‘The Great Game: Afghanistan’ is a stunning theatrical achievement

“The Great Game: Afghanistan” is at turns thrilling and infuriating as a complex web of events, stories and characters take us along the Asian country’s troubled past and present. It’s a massive undertaking that doesn’t pretend to have the answers. And the touring production from Britain’s Tricycle Theatre, now playing at the Guthrie Theater, may be one of the most important to be seen in the Twin Cities this year.

The piece features 12 short plays about the country written by a dozen playwrights, and also includes a number of short interstitial moments — illustrations of key moments in history and “Verbatim” segments that include comments and speeches from a number of military and social figures. All of this paints a wide picture of the country, but — thankfully — doesn’t purport to offer any easy solution to the problems faced by the country.

Covering nearly two centuries of history, patterns do emerge in the narrative. There have been waves of outsiders who have tried to put their stamp on the country. The spare population and strong regional and community ties have kept centralized government unstable and there have been many crossroads that may have led to a better, safer land if a different path had been taken.

As theater, the pieces are of a mixed lot. Some come close to being bare history lessons (Amit Gupta’s ultimately dull “Campaign”), while others ramp up the melodrama to the point that — even when the events described are true — they lose their impact by becoming too shrill and overheated (Colin Teevan’s “The Lion of Kabul” is the worst offender here).

When they hit on all cylinders — watch out. David Edgar’s look at the Soviet occupation, “Black Tulips,” takes us through five briefings of new soldiers that travel back in time, allowing us to see the end result long before the cheery introductions. David Greig’s “Miniskirts of Kabul” imagines the final minutes of Soviet-era president Najibullah’s life in 1996 through the mind of a British writer looking for answers. And the finale, Simon Stephen’s “Canopy of Stars,” brings the six-plus hours of theater down to the basic questions  — why is the West in Afghanistan, have we done any good and will remaining there make the country better or worse.

It’s a stunning theatrical achievement — and one that really needs to be experienced as a whole, even though it is split into three easier-to-digest chunks. That’s in part because the best moments are spread through all three pieces of the work. Also, the most consistent — part three — would lose much of its impact without the context provided in parts one and two. If you come into just part three, the whitewashed backdrop (a piece of art celebrating the history of Afghanistan destroyed in the second segment by the Taliban) loses all context.

“Afghanistan: The Great Game” runs through Oct. 17 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St. Tickets are $30 to $120. For information, call 612-377-2224 or visit online.

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