Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Tender Mercies

For much of Sladjana Vujovic's The Tender Mercies, there is very little visible emotion, and even less action. This is a necessity--in fact, it is what the character spend most of their time discussing, an act that nears the presentational polemics of Brecht, but wisely holds itself in check. Unfortunately, it holds itself too much in check: the point it is demonstrating may come at the expense of its audience, especially an impatient, apolitical one. Too much of the play is wrapped up in the repetition of a single idea, that of Frank Sinatra's anthem "My Way" ("To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels"), and Jessi D. Hill's direction--purposefully ambiguous in its restraint and minimalism--doesn't pay off until late in the show. It does, however, pay off.

When we first meet Zig (Gregory Waller), he appears to be an interrogator in the year-long process of indoctrinating Alex (Jim Kane). He's succeeded in breaking Alex to a certain degree--the torture may have helped--for the man denounces himself and his family, dehumanized to the level of "a piece of shit." But they're stuck in a rut, for Alex says things, like "I shall always love the truth . . . unless otherwise ordered," but clearly doesn't mean them, able only to repeat what has been beaten into him. By the second scene, we begin to realize that Zig, too, has been indoctrinated--more successfully--as he exaggeratedly leaps to his feet to salute his commander, Rose (Christina Bennett Lind), even as she coolly, sadistically mocks him. And rightly so, for what sort of man is Zig? As things start to heat up, we learn that Zig and Alex were once friends, but that Zig ratted his partner out, leading to the current situation, in which they will both be granted freedom--and offer that Alex remains chary of--if Zig can successfully convince the Commandant that they've both changed.

To do so, Zig has put together a play--starring himself and Alex--that he will now perform for Rose, who will then decide whether or not the two of them can live. And this play happens to be very stylized, but on many levels (this is the truly Brechtian bit). Rose--the sort of dehumanized person who glibly jokes about death camps and delights in removing the veils from her own threats--rightly calls them out on their performance, pushing them to debase themselves further as they sing and dance of their own (probably exaggerated) depravities, and forcing them to skip through the play. "I've had enough of words," she says. "They're not used with care. Is there any action?"

The Tender Mercies isn't surprising--war is dehumanizing, victims are tortured (psychologically, too)--but it is effective. The further we watch Zig and Alex sink, the more we wonder whether or not they actually even deserve to live--for what are they, without beliefs and ideas of their own? Moreover, Hill makes a bold directorial choice in the final moment of the play--bolstered, no doubt, by Lind's excellent performance--that makes the audience once more question Rose's own motivations, feelings, and humanity. For as Rose steps through the fourth-wall of the box that makes up this one-roomed set, it's possible that what we have been watching is not Zig and Alex's performance--but Rose's. It's a thought-provoking moment, one fraught at last with that hidden emotion. However, one can throw the question of the play right back at the playwright: at what cost comes victory?

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