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Thursday, November 06, 2014

It's a Battlefield

THEATER OFFERS AN IMMERSIVE POTENTIAL that even the most ambitious 3D IMAX presentation can’t touch, based on the presence of living actors in a real-time realization of the conflicts and joy that inform all lives.

Sipiwe Moyo and Tricia Alexandro
Photo by Enrico Spada
Director Kristen van Ginhoven’s realization of “In Darfur” placed the troubling play in the midst of an audience seated on barstools and lawn chairs of varying height, the construction-site set dressed with the flimsiest of props and flats and halogen lamps. We were encouraged to enter early to accustom ourselves to the environment; we would not be allowed in if late.

Amidst the nervous pre-show chatter, one couple set themselves up with charming equanimity in a front-row pair of low chairs, each with a Sunday NY Times section, looking for all the world as if they were on the nearby Tanglewood lawn. Unwittingly, they embodied the type for whom Times reporter Maryke (Tricia Alexandro) is struggling to get a story about the genocide she has witnessed in Darfur on the coveted front page.

Playwright Winter Miller was herself a Times reporter who accompanied Nicholas Kristof to that part of Africa in 2006. She shrewdly fashioned a work that exemplifies the horrors of the slaughter through its effects on a handful of people – chief among them Hawa (Sipiwe Moyo), a university-educated Darfur native who teaches English but is swept up in the atrocities committed by government-sponsored terrorists.

Hawa’s journey is the heart of the show, and Moyo brilliantly shows us a woman able to undergo a nightmarish cascade of horrors with courage and dignity – and yet human enough to let her ambition (she wishes to be a journalist) persuade her into unsafe behavior. And she’s given a gut-wrenching monologue made the more powerful by her restraint.

She has been raped and tortured by marauding soldiers; she discovers she is pregnant. A white doctor named Carlos (Rich Lounello) files a report of the rape; Hawa is then sought by soldiers and punished for being an adulteress. It’s the outlandish kind of event you’d expect from a Graham Greene novel, but Greene, too, was drawing from the same repulsive well.

Irony can be a tricky tool for the storyteller. Maryke is pleading with her Times editor, Jan (Christina Gordon) for more time to verify her story. Jan needs to move her elsewhere. “How does a black woman not give a shit abut Africa?” Maryke angrily blurts in one of several head-butting scenes between the characters that thus fail to ring true. Even if Winter (or Kristof) did run up against such resistance, as played out here it sounds like ’40s-movie cliché, weakening the intensity. I would not have been surprised to see Jan whack a rolltop desk; what she does, as Maryke presents her hard-won story, is impose an ultimatum so heartless as to set her, in effect, as another force of evil to complete the moral dilemma that informs the conclusion of the show. It was a too-easy choice for the playwright.

But that’s my only quarrel with an otherwise breathtaking production. Lounello deserves special praise for keeping the doctor fallible even as he struggles to pursue his mission of helping others. He’s a handsome actor who uses those looks as a tool: in a scene with Maryke, as she’s trying to wheedle information he’s reluctant to give, you can see his face crumble as he realizes that the possibility of romance has passed.

Alexandro plays Maryke with a credible combination of resourcefulness and fear. She, too, has a journey, beginning as a fish out of water who eventually understands that she might be telling her own story, even as she selfishly crosses a moral line in order to deliver the piece.

The three who complete the ensemble are Shannon Harris as Hamida, and Marcus D. Harvey and Warren Jackson as soldiers – and in many other roles, some with impressively quick changes. Jackson also served as fight captain, and the result, as theatrical as it was, nevertheless was more effective than the special effects-laden stuff of recorded entertainment by virtue of its immediacy and surprise.

Van Ginhoven is a force of nature, Maryke-like, I suspect, in her determination to tell this kind of story with whatever resources she can assemble. Fortunately, the resources here, including the cast, the production team, and the theater space at Lenox’s Shakespeare & Co., serve her well.

This production gives us theater at its most effective, a reminder that this long has been the medium to provoke awareness and discussion of our lives and the world around us. By definition, genocide is a grand-scale activity; here, shorn of its massiveness, it becomes a story of neighbors and the need – the imperative – to counter oppressive forces. We’re a complacent society, content to have information distilled by corporate forces and easily gulled into electing the politicians those corporate forces control. Here’s hoping “In Darfur” and other such productions will open our eyes.

The show runs through November 16; more information is available at the WAM Theatre website

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