Tuesday, January 18, 2011

THEATER: Honey Brown Eyes

Photo/Lia Chang

Dragan (Edoardo Ballerini) a Serbian soldier, trains an automatic rifle on Alma (Sue Cremin), a Bosnian Muslim; for the duration of this first scene, he will terrorize her, as if by rote, shaking her down for money, food, cigarettes, and possibly sex, though something holds the young man back from this last part. It's that hint of something else that keeps Honey Brown Eyes from being just a bland caricaturization of the Bosnian War, circa 1992, and thankfully playwright Stefanie Zadravec spends the next seventy minutes deepening our understanding and sympathy of these former comrades, now separated by the vaguest of distinctions. This is fortunate for director Erica Schmidt, too: she's out of her depth when it comes to provoking tension -- the blocking is too broad and the menacing lines come off as being scripted, particularly out of the mouth of Branko (Gene Gillette), Dragan's two-dimensionally violent superior. As the title implies, it's the specifics -- the things that modify us from being a blank set of eyes and into a class of color and, more importantly, an object of sweet desire -- that draw us in.

As it turns out, Dragan once played in a band with Alma's older brother, Denis (Daniel Serafini-Sauli), and, more importantly, had a crush on the older (and now unrecognizable) Alma. This simple fact -- shared history -- instantly elevates the play, and makes Dragan into a real character, a boy-soldier (essentially) who takes the constant ribbing by his fellow soldiers because he cannot bring himself to see these people, people he grew up with, as enemies to be raped and then massacred. The tough-guy act he has put on elicits our sympathy, and justifies Branko's inclusion in the play: he shows the difference between a cold-blooded and warm-blooded killer. It also makes the inevitable outcome of the first act all the more tragic: Alma must die, but must Dragan be the one to pull the trigger?

The second act increases the surprises, jumping in place (although not time) from Visegrad to Sarajevo, where Denis, disowned by his sister for joining the resistance, hides in the apartment of the elderly Jovanka (Kate Skinner), a wonderfully sweet and tough character. Though Denis is technically "the enemy," Jovanka hides him, for she has lived through too much to dismiss him in such a black-and-white fashion; in fact, she cannot help but see her own grandson reflected in him. Although this act is quieter than the first (never mind the constant sound of bombs outside), it is just as dramatic, offering us a parallel to Dragan's circumstances and filling in many of the blanks in their shared history as bandmates. Of particular note is Denis's sorrowful assertion that Dragan, a well-off and emotional kid, would never have been able to join the military, though we, of course, know otherwise.

And that's the kicker of the affecting Honey Brown Eyes: war does terrible things to ordinary people. We say that we can understand, but could we have ever guessed that Denis joined the war because his six-month-old son was kicked down the street like a soccer ball? Leaving the theater, there's a change between the first scene's immediate hatred toward the "mean" Dragan and a new-found regret: What must have happened to Dragan? Though Zadravec and Schmidt are both guilty of playing a bit too broadly at times (juxtaposing the laugh track from an episode of Alf with the terrorizing of Alma is unnecessary), they are ultimately successful at humanizing their characters, at chalking up a thin, thin line between victim and villain.

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