Saturday, June 16, 2007

PLAY: "The Devil on All Sides"

Photo/Rachel Roberts

Here's an interesting show for you: a play about war by way of Yugoslavia (1993) by way of a French author (Fabrice Melquiot) by way of a San Fransisco physical theater troupe (foolsFURY) now touring at PS122. To say that something's been lost in translation would be an understatement, but what's left is a functionally surreal drama about war, which, as Ben Yalom directs it, has a language all of its own.

The Devil on All Sides has an eerie suspense to it, but the dialogue seems to be about as successful as a shelling exercise: some of the lines are right on target; some resound, but only from the shrapnel of afterthought; others fall flat; and some seem to have been written simply to help the playwright find the mark he wants to hit. The scenes bleed rapidly into one another, but there's never an adjustment in tone. Our elegiac hero, Lorko, flees from conscription, hitching rides first with an Italian, then with a Frenchman; at the same time, his brother Jovan and his best friend Alexander keep returning from evening skirmishes to commiserate with Sladjana and Vid (Lorko's parents) over a bowl of bouillon. As the characters evolve, Lorko starts to hallucinate them, especially his Muslim wife, Elma, but because these scenes are all so similar, they often take up the redundancy of war.

That's where the direction comes in: The Devil on All Sides works hard to build beauty from routine, which is a fitting style for a war play. A series of Tetris-shaped rubble is manipulated into various objects, a large tapestry serves either to project ominous shadows or to reveal more intimate spaces, and popular music (like "Bridge Over Troubled Waters") helps to close the distance between Them and Us. The best scenes do even more to break these barriers: early on, Alexander and Jovan flee the enemy, but they do so while sitting, doing a jerky series of movement that almost looks like they're playing a video game. When the lights come on and we see that Alexander's eyes have been gouged out, it's shocking. This is then turned to farce (he continues to fight and continues to be mutilated) and then to reality, when the bombs start dropping on Jovan's house and the childishness turns to an uglier coming of age. Of course, we also get flowers bursting out of people's mouths and some inexplicable blocking choices involving crawlspaces and reverse trust-falls, so it's not all brilliant work.

Between the strained language and occasionally excessive staging, The Devil on All Sides is bogged down in theatricality. However, it's extremely successful in its casting, as the actors understand the need for silence and balance, and don't try to emote their way through poetry. I just wish it didn't seem like such a fight just to put up a show about the state of fighting.

No comments: