THEATER REVIEW: SAN FRANCISCO
Show #92: Honey Brown Eyes, SF Playhouse, September 27.
Show #90: Night over Erzinga, Golden Thread Productions, September 18.
By Sam Hurwitt
Genocide is a tough nut to crack. The unimaginable excesses of war are exactly the sort of thing that theatre should address and explore, but it’s hard to know how to begin to get a handle on the subject. As it happens there are two dramas in San Francisco right now dealing with the impact of wholesale slaughter of one ethnic group by its neighbors on opposite ends of the 20th century—ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the 1990s and the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire (particularly present-day Turkey) in the 1910s.
A 2009 Helen Hayes Award winner for outstanding new play in the Washington, DC area, Stefanie Zadravec’s Honey Brown Eyes is now being given a well-performed West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse staged by producing director Susi Damilano. Sound designer Brendan Aanes fills the scene changes with a cacophony of Eastern European and noisy rock music clashing together. Miyuki Bierlein’s casual costumes help drive home the fact that these aren’t crazily foreign people with savage customs we’ll never understand, but basically people just like us. (And what’s more, whenever horrible things are done in faraway countries, no matter how remote or what people look like there, they’re also done by and to people just like us.) Artistic director Bill English’s set is of a quaint country kitchen like you might find in Ireland or Napa or wherever, changing to an entirely different kitchen in the second act.
A soldier bursts in, pointing a rife at the lovely young woman who lives there, who simply offers him some coffee. He’s a Serb and she’s a Bosnian Muslim, but you’d never be able to tell a difference by looking at them, and in fact they’re from the same town. The soldier is nervous, panting and looking behind him furtively as he barks questions at her, demanding to know where her husband and daughter are. Her husband isn’t there, she says, and she doesn’t have a daughter. A tiny TV plays a sitcom in the background, its laugh track disturbingly out of place. In the background you can hear pounding on all the other doors: They’re rounding everyone up in Visegrad.
In a T-shirt and dirty jeans, Nic Grelli’s Dragan isn’t much of a soldier. There’s a plaintive, whiny nervousness about him, afraid of his fellow soldiers and frustrated nearly to tears when the TV cuts out in the middle of a favorite song on MTV Europe. You get a sense that his heart isn’t really in the torture and rape and slaughter, but he does it anyway because everybody’s doing it, and tries to get into it as best he can. When he and Alma discover that they actually know each other, he starts talking to her about the old days like old friends, as if he doesn’t even notice that she’s bloodied from the beating he just gave her. His denial is so total that it’s hard to fathom or believe. When Alma talks about how her husband was killed and dumped in the river, it doesn’t penetrate his tunnel vision, but he goes on and on about the band he used to be in with Alma’s brother Denis and how they could have been huge if Denis hadn’t broken up the band. Alma plays along, but she’s always thinking about what’s going to happen and what she can do about it.
That’s more in Jennifer Stuckert’s performance as Alma than in the script, though. At first she’s in a daze about what to bring in her bag to wherever he’s taking her (to a nearby hotel to be raped, beaten and maybe killed by soldiers), and then she’s adamant that she’s not leaving her home to be looted and destroyed. Otherwise Alma plays her cards very close to her chest, and it’s Stuckert’s dignity of bearing and nonconfrontational calm in the face of violence and horror that makes it work. In fact, all the women in the play hold it together admirably well, while the men fall apart.
Cooper Carlson plays a big, confident, bullying soldier who’s not conflicted at all, relishing the harm they’re causing. From the way he teases Dragan, it seems he especially enjoys watching Alf and raping preteen girls. “I like to hear the bones crack on the skinny ones,” he says. Madeleine Pauker, rotating with Rachel Share-Saposky, is an eerily calm young girl who enters unexpectedly.
The second half is in Sarajevo, where a ragged and desperate Denis takes refuge in an old woman’s apartment. He’s a resistance soldier who’s been on the run so long that he’s no longer any kind of soldier at all, if indeed he ever fought to begin with. Played touchingly by Chad Deverman, Denis is filthy and weepy and so traumatized that he seems utterly lost. Although on her guard, Wanda McCaddon’s Jovanka is brisk, humane and good-humored, singing as she cooks onions (for real—and boy, they do smell as good as the starving Denis says they do).
Once fed, Denis is more at ease—so much so that he seems distractingly like an entirely different person, holding court drunkenly with old stories about his band and the jokes he used to play on Dragan. This is one of several bits in the play that are more wearying than affecting: Dragan makes an irritating game-show buzzer noise whenever Alma gives an answer he doesn’t like, and Denis becomes mighty obnoxious when he’s drunk, particularly with his repeated “onion queen” flattery of Jovanka.
Shocking things happen in the first act, and we hear about more horrible things in the second, so the play certainly doesn’t minimize the horror of what went on in Bosnia. But at the same time, it only offers the smallest glimpse of it, putting more emphasis on the back story of Dragan, Alma and Denis than on what happens next and the choices they make. In fact none of them really are making choices—they’re just reacting to things in a daze—and so the present-day (circa 1992) action taking place onstage feels underdeveloped. It’s ultimately a very small play about a big subject.
Night over Erzinga is playwright Adriana Sevahn Nichols’s attempt to make sense of her own family history—her grandparents who fled the Armenian genocide of 1915, and the life they and their daughter tried to build in the United States. And it doesn’t really pretend otherwise—more than anything, it’s overtly a play about trying to make sense of family history.
The overarching structure is a little rough: At the beginning the adult Estrella (Sarita Ocón) recites a poetic invocation of the memory of her ancestors, and they slowly walk around her. The first act is the story of her grandparents: How they fled Armenia, how they met in America, and how they eventually fell apart. The second act jumps forward to how her parents met, with some clever parallels to the previous generation. Much of the material detailing the family’s lives is quite powerful, so ultimately it’s a play with a strong middle and not much of a beginning or end.
Golden Thread Productions’ world premiere at Fort Mason’s South Side Theatre (formerly part of Magic Theatre) is the inaugural production of the Middle East America new plays initiative, a partnership between Golden thread, Silk Road Theatre Project in Chicago and the Lark Play Development Center in New York. It’s a powerful production with a powerhouse cast directed by Hafiz Karmali.
Mikiko Uesugi’s set starts with a mostly bare stage with hints of a bare-branched tree in the foreground and background, a reference that isn’t touched on until the very end of the play, and in a way that assumes more resonance than it carries. Walls roll in to form rooms as needed. Penka Koeneva’s score of haunting Middle Eastern music is very strong, with the exception of a mawkish sentimental theme whenever a particular family heirloom is passed down.
When we first meet Juliet Tanner as Alice Oghidanian, she’s frantic. A kindly New York cop (Lawrence Radecker) picked her up panicked and paranoid in the streets, and her bewildered young husband Ardavazdt (Brian Trybom) explains that she just lost a baby. But she’s crazed, hyperventilating, scrubbing the floors and wailing about blood like a young Lady Macbeth.
From there we jump around in time: A radiant, carefree young Alice back in the old country. Alice after the incident being committed by a businesslike, matter-of-fact doctor (Terry Lamb). Ardavazdt’s eighteenth birthday party in Erzinga busted up by a chillingly sinister Turkish soldier (Radecker) looking to draft him as he hides under the table, and daring Ardavazdt’s father (Lamb) to do something as he caresses his wife (Ocón). Ardavazdt’s voyage to the United States; him visiting his wife in the hospital. There’s an adorable scene of the two of them first meeting at a party, he more charming than one might have thought possible after seeing his hapless, slightly older self. But no sooner do we see their adorable meeting than we jump to when things first started to go bad, and we jump back to the horrific experiences during the massacre that would seem to make her breakdown inevitable.
The second act catches up with neglected daughter Ava all grown up, fully Americanized and an overly made-up aspiring starlet flirting with the very heavily accented Latin tenor Bienvenido Raymundo. She has a rocky relationship with her father, now a stern but vulnerable Lamb. This act is more linear than the previous one (with the exception of an inane dream sequence that feels glaringly out of place) and is a process of the family getting to know each other—Ava and Bienvenido’s often very funny interactions, the tension between Ava and her father, and the instant bonding between Bienvenido and Ardavazdt that Ava isn’t sure she likes.
Tanner is gripping as Alice, both in traumatized tragedy and in (all too brief) youthful exuberance, although her harder-edged role as Americanized daughter Ava is sometimes grating in her standoffishness. Trybom is superb as two generations of young husbands, the kind but too uncompromising Ardavazdt and Dominican aspiring opera singer and full-time charmer Bienvenido. Neva Marie Hutchinson makes a credible catatonic as the older, long-institutionalized Alice, but she carries that same bland blankness to the other parts she plays. Lamb plays the fathers—Ava’s and Ardavazdt’s—with deep feeling. Radecker and Ocón do strong work in a variety of roles, and fourth grader Natalie Amanian has strong energy as several enthusiastic little girls, most notably the young Estrella and Aghvani, who would later change her name to Ava.
It’s a three-hour play, and the second act is longer than the first, which is usually a bad idea. But the story is so compelling, and the character of Bienvenido especially is such a breath of fresh air, that the latter half doesn’t drag. After all, it’s essentially a whole new story, and new stories take time. Much of the family’s tale is tragic, but the way it’s presented ensures that even at its worst, when their families back home are being wiped out, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world. After all, for this family story that horrific end is just the beginning.
Night over Erzinga plays through October 9 at South Side Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, San Francisco. http://goldenthread.org
Honey Brown Eyes
Through November 5
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA