Friday, May 7, 2004

Hearts and minds: It's also a fight for bodies, and homes, and memories

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Bosnia is a forgotten place now. With Afghanistan — remember that one? — and Iraq eating up the headlines, it’s easy to forget — or never find out — that they’re still finding mass graves in Bosnia, still prosecuting war criminals, still sending US troops to keep the peace.

Feminist playwright Eve Ensler (who wrote The Vagina Monologues) has not forgotten. In the early 1990s, she went to Bosnia, seeking out the stories of women who had been cruelly treated in the sectarian fighting among the Muslims, Serbs, and Croats there.

Necessary Targets is one of the results of the interviews she conducted. It is a riskier play than many established Maine theaters might put on, but the Theater Project isn’t asking people to pony up 30 bucks a seat, which forces theaters to play it safe to avoid a box-office disaster. No, the Theater Project’s artistic wings have been freed by its pay-what-you-can ticket policy for every seat at every show.

The theater suggests donating $15 for a ticket, but they’ll take a penny if that’s what you’ve got. Artistic director Al Miller says the dollar income at the box office is about the same as before the policy began in January, and audience numbers are up.

The crowds still pack in for big shows, but more people come to risky shows than would if prices were higher. Most people who are new to the theater pay about $5, says producer Frank Wicks. Long-time fans often pay $15 or more.

Those who make it to Necessary Targets will find one of the richest, best-acted shows to appear on Maine stages in a year. It’s a pity the play itself is so choppy, because the acting is inspired and the stories riveting.

The plot serves as a vehicle to get Ensler’s experience on the table. A psychiatrist (J.S., played by Kathleen Kimball) who has never left the US, and a war-zone-junkie trauma counselor (Melissa, played by Heather Perry Weafer) head to Bosnia together, to help women deal with their experiences, which included gang rape among other, more unspeakable abuses.

The five women whom they encounter in a Bosnian refugee camp are a broad spectrum of the women Ensler must have met. There is Azra (Tootie Van Reenen), an old woman angry about the wasteful slaughter of her cows and goats; Jelena (Wendy Poole), a tough-as-nails Rizzo-type; Nuna (Reba Short), a gleefully America-crazy young woman; Zlata (Michele Livermore Wigton), a pediatrician who is both war-weary and suspicious of foreigners coming to " help " ; and Seada (Elizabeth Chambers), a young mother from the country.

One by one, the women begin to tell their stories, from the heartbreaking simplicity of Azra’s ouster from her home, to Seada’s graphic tale of being chased from her home and suffering abuses whose details had me nearly ready to vomit in the aisle.

The thoughtful one turns out to be combative Zlata, who comes to a deeper understanding with J.S., while still keeping her contempt for Melissa’s " parachute " style.

These stories demand our attention, our suffering. As Seada says from the depth of her grief, " Hurt. " And hurt we do. It’s crushing to hear what humans are capable of, and simple to think of how we might become that way. As Zlata asks, " What would drive you to violence? "

More often than not, it’s little things, piled on top of each other, that send people over the edge. It could indeed happen here. We are not more superior, more tolerant, or otherwise better. We are, perhaps, just luckier.

The staging is deceptively complex. It looks like a basic refugee camp, but becomes a river, a tent, a bluff overlooking a view, a grave, and a dark forest of terror.

Yet the choppy structure speaks of too much to say with too little organization, and the heavy ending falls into the same trap as many activist plays: It states outright, over and over, the point of the play, without giving credit to the brains and hearts of the audience.

Necessary Targets
Written by Eve Ensler. Directed by Christopher Price. With Kathleen Kimball, Heather Perry Weafer, Tootie Van Reenen, Michele Livermore Wigton, Reba Short, Elizabeth Chambers, and Wendy Poole. At the Theater Project, Brunswick, through May 16. Call (207) 729-8584.


• It’s festival time! First up is the Little Festival of the Unexpected, when Portland Stage Company showcases the top three New England plays from the annual Clauder competition. It can be a great way to see shows that would otherwise rarely make it to PSC. This year’s festival starts May 11 and runs through May 15, with staged readings of Clauder winner Yemaya’s Belly (a Caribbean coming-of-age tale) by Quiara Alegria Hudes, and runners-up Remuda (a dark comedy) by William Donnelly and Wonderland (a satire of celebrity) by David Valdes Greenwood, a contributor to the Boston Phoenix.

• Then the Maine Playwrights’ Lab (formerly Amma Studio) will have a pair of new-play readings at the Stillhouse Studio, above the Katahdin restaurant on High Street. Admission is $5. At 7 p.m. May 16, the piece will be John Manderino’s play Stools, Benches, Ladders & Chairs, a series of short pieces. At 7 p.m. May 23 will be I Remember You by Phoebe Reeves, a personal family drama.

• And between June 8 and June 12, Acorn Productions will put on The Cassandra Project, a festival of female performing artists including 14 shows. All will be held at Portland Stage Company, either on the main stage or in the studio theater.