Friday, March 13, 2009

Theater review: Scorched

I've been lucky enough in the past couple of weeks to see some fine theater in our fine city. If you're a student, CHECK OUT THE WILMA -- they offer insanely cheap student season subscriptions. I'm absolutely going to renew mine. And 1812 offers great subscription rates, too! Way to keep the theater accessible, people!

This past weekend I saw the Wilma's latest offering in politically hard-hitting drama, Scorched, by Wajdi Mouawad and translated from the French by Linda Gaboriau. The translation was beautiful, poetic--and made me wish my French were better, because I imagine the original is still more so. The story is anything but subtle, though subtle isn't exactly what I expect from Blanka anyway: the Ziskas pull no punches, to be sure. We follow a twin brother and sister on a quest to discover their mother's secrets, following directives in her will. The present-day scenes alternate with flashbacks of the mother's experiences in an unnamed, war-torn Middle Eastern country: hers is a "boy meets girl, boy impregnates girl, boy disappears and girl is forced to give up her baby, girl spends her life seeking this child and inadvertently becomes a peace activist and national hero, girl's adult children only learn her tragic story after her death" kind of story. You know, the usual.

The big secret, the one that leaves the audience gasping, is devastating, though perhaps in an overly melodramatic way. The actors playing the mother (Aadya Bedi as young Nawal, Jacqueline Antaramian as adult Nawal, and Janis Dardaris as old Nawal) are all excellent, creating a deeply sympathetic and multi-faceted character among the three of them. But unfortunately, the significant moments of revelation lie in the hands of less talented performers. Omar Koury, cast as a chorus figure who reappears throughout the play as a series of secondary characters, fails entirely: he plays no character convincingly, nor does he manage a stylized chorus figure who observes rather than takes part in the play. Instead, he seemed more like a stand-up comedian. Giving this actor the responsibility of explaining to the present-day actors and to the audience just how horribly, ironically painful the mother's life had been is like asking Chris Farley to explain the Holocaust.

The present-day actors, Leila Buck and Ariel Shafir, are serviceable in their roles, and Jolly Abraham brings a passionate intensity to her portrayal of Nawal's friend and partner on her quest. Benjamin Lloyd, as the executor of Nawal's will, is undoubtedly talented, adding lightness to an otherwise heavy play. But while I understand the playwright’s desire to give the audience a respite from the somber plot, I felt cheated by this character's constant malapropisms. The word play was cheap, an easy out for an audience that I didn't feel had earned their laugh; it diminished my ability to feel the rest of the story in my bones. Indeed, Lloyd seemed to be embarrassed by these lines, though perhaps I was merely embarrassed for him. Otherwise, he brought a sweet, optimistic pathos to his character, as the only person who cared for Nawal in her final years--her only friend.

My plus-one astutely noted that the design for the show was crisp, with a versatile minimalist set and richly evocative musical composition. The bare platform easily shifted from orphanage, to notary’s office, to U.N. courtroom with ease, aided by a deftly sparse lighting design.

All told, I came away from the play feeling scorched by the story, by the knowledge that the events of the story could be true; but ultimately the production and the script didn't live up to their full potential. I hold the Wilma to higher standards. Still, don't take my word for it: I would recommend the show as an ambitious undertaking with a (mostly) great cast, an evening of theater that if nothing else, will make you think.

1 comment:

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