By Lex Friedman
In "The Fallen," the latest offering from T. Schreiber Studio and directed by the man himself, playwright Yasmina Beverly Rana dives headfirst into a recent but undertold history lesson: the gruesome events and lasting effects of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It's a subject I knew very little about and after having watched Ms. Rana's play, I am ashamed that I hadn't ever considered learning more.
Ms. Rana takes us through events ranging from the brutal raping and forced pregnancy of Muslim women in the region to the private suffering of one of the children "forced to be born," to the repression and denial of the soldiers who committed these heinous acts. And while the subject is provocative and the performances earnestly realized, the play itself felt overwrought and, at times, pedagogical.
The production was a bit over two hours long, without an intermission (perhaps to better foster the suffocating climate of the country at the time) and at six "parts" (really seven scenes) each one-or-two person interaction averages about 20 minutes. The protracted scenes did little to create the urgency implied by the writer's actual text, keeping the whole of the experience contemplative, rather than experiential.
Each scene is so fraught with high drama that it is difficult to discern which points Ms. Rana wanted to stand out strongest or to underplay for effect. There's a coyness, a reluctance to mention the religious nature of the conflict which, for viewers like me, left me feeling as though I'd be told "you ought to know better." (There are allusions to pork and even one fascinating story about the forbidden meat being snuck into meals as a punishment that shrug toward Muslim as Crime but it is not made clear until a recording of Bosnia's eventual apology is broadcast over the final scene change."
As a writer, however, Ms. Rana does have a way with words, and when you sift through the repetition, there are truly beautiful moments of poetry. "I never learned anything in school," laments a conflicted soldier, played with striking simplicity by Joshua Mark Sienkiewicz. "I never asked any questions."
Mr. Schreiber's staging is curious. He has actors deliberately upstaging one another, forcing their partners to stand downstage, delivering their lines out into the middle distance. In a monologue about valuing stillness and staying where she is, Mr. Schreiber has Anais (Kelly Swartz) pacing back and forth around the stage, expending all this caged energy. A museum security guard (George Mauriadis,) whom the audience can identify as Anais's potential father, circles around his appointed room, and while the Mr. Mauriadis lends an appropriate and engaging stoicism of manner and inner conflict to the man, it is somewhat diffused by all the cat-and-mouse staging of the penultimate scene of the play.
However confounding the direction, though, Mr. Schreiber's passion for the project comes through. Perhaps this is why each scene (save the first) begins already at such emotional heights with little room to rise. The urgency to stay true to the the emotional life of the tortured and the discarded has trumped the necessity for the piece to rise and fall, to follow an arc, to give the audience a moment to understand what it is they've seen. I'd be hard-pressed to pick a climax.
As it is clear that this play is profoundly important to the director, so too it is easy to see how meaningful it is to each of the performers - everyone jumps in with both feet and you can tell a great amount of care went into the craft of this ensemble.
Ms. Swartz has a striking moment near the end of her lengthy speech where she is furious, raging, and at the same time laughing, spitting in the face of irony like a viper. Mr. Sienkiewicz languishes and evades and pauses and considers with remarkable nuance in both his post-coital opening moments and his somehow more vulnerable turn as a soldier ordered but unable to rape the young women held captive in a prison camp.
The eventual main focus of the piece, Anais seems at once curious to know and combative towards answers. But when presented with the opportunity to get them from characters she meets along her journey, she balks. Eventually she demands answers from her mother (a pillar of seasoned strength as portrayed by Molly Gyllenhaal) and the play ends with the possibility that Anais might learn a little more about the struggle but without the assurance that she'll be satisfied with the answer. Not that we need one. Nothing about this subject is cut-and-dry, but ought it to be? The catharsis one might expect after two hours of theater is muddled by the fact that each event seems to have the same weight throughout. Further homogenizing the story, the six characters revealing their own point of view of the subject, seemed to represent little diversity in their approach to hindsight.
There are a few notable moments of theater magic as well. As the young hostage Mirela, Ms. Gyllenhaal pleads "Am I really here?" and then proclaims "I'm not really here!" all the while sitting on a rotting cot in a gutter elementary school. With a trick of the lights (designed by Eric Cope,) Mirela's shadow appears perched on a school chair, looming over the scene, maybe still here but not here. In a different time, when the building held friendlier memories for Mirela.
Hal Tiné's set was bleak and sparse and effectively versatile, invoking the unfamiliar comfort of a hotel room of a tourist in Trieste, an aerie-like rooftop over war-torn Sarajevo, a starkly-lit holding room in a prison camp.
Overall, it is clear the subject is worth telling, and I don't doubt that Ms. Rana could be the one to tell it - it is clear that it important to her and that she does not approach the subject of being the product of systematic, brutal rape cavalierly. I just felt that if it is to be dramatically dynamic, perhaps she might have been well served standing a little further away from the material for a moment, at arm's length long enough to carve away any bits well-worn or unintentionally recurring or pedantically instructive and reveal the specific, visceral, horrible visage underneath in as succinct and powerful way as Part Five's centerpiece, Jean Feutrier's sculpture that so moved her, Head of a Hostage.
We cannot possibly know, but we are compelled to try to understand.
By Yasmina Beverly Rana
Directed by Terry Schreiber
Closed July 28th