Tuesday, January 16, 2007

PLAY: "The Monument"

Lights up on an electric chair. The man strapped to it is a soldier, or a murdering rapist, or both. Above all, Stetko (Jay Rohloff) is a man who only knows how to take orders, a man who has become impotent, and a man who now faces final judgment. When a mysterious woman named Mejra (Ramona Floyd) shows up, offering him his life in return for obeying her every whim, it is only natural for him to accept. The real mystery would then lie in what Mejra wants, but it is fairly obvious she is the mother of one of Stetko's twenty-seven victims. Therefore, for all playwright Colleen Wagner's clever lines and the way she's built her two characters up to represent the military and civilian sides, The Monument rests on its actors. That heavy weight--dead children, mass graves, and suffering--is perhaps too much for them; for the majority of the play, they approach the themes so broadly, and so one-dimensionally, that it's hard to digest the language.

It's a shame, for director Beverly Brumm has tried her hardest to give the actors things to work off of. The set is covered in a thick and dying soil, the backdrop is a stark blue sky, and the chains are real (even if the violence is choreographed). Mejra, when she is not chopping off Stetko's ears or yoking him to a giant till, is busy struggling to comprehend her prisoner, and Stetko is often laboring to carry heavy rocks or endure his mistress' harsh treatment of him. For all that action, the lines come out dusty as the stage's arid soil: Rohloff is unflinching even when told that his girlfriend has been killed and then raped. The closest he comes to emotion is in his full-bodied monologue while strapped to the chair, and later, when he tries to protect a rabbit he has befriended. As for Floyd, she is full of emotion, but suppresses too much of it. She is too harsh, too icy toward her prisoner--rather than leading him on with hope, there is little doubt in our minds that she plans to kill Stetko, and her constant imperatives are monotonous.

When the actor's habits happen to coincide with the message of the play, the show works most effectively: the opening is a real tightrope walk, and the excavation of the corpses is a high moment for off-Broadway theater. The text also features a glut of clever circumstances, like when Stetko is told that if he drops the boulder he is carrying anywhere but on his foot, she will bury him alive. His bitter defiance, even after he shatters his toes, is clever writing by any standard. The Monument may not stand tall in this production, but any ode to the victims of war--innocent and guilty alike--is better than none.

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