nytheatre.com review by Andrew Bielski
April 25, 2008
By weaving together strands of Judaic, Islamic, and Christian tradition in its narrative of the life of the prophet Abraham, Brothers, the world-premiere production currently playing at the La MaMa Annex, attempts to illuminate the spiritual roots common to all three religions. According to program notes, the production "explores human conflictual impulses and the unsolved contradictions that still plague contemporary world politics," in an "attempt to recover the spiritual sense of theatre."
Brothers was developed under the auspices of City Theatre Jazavac, of Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Offucina Eclectic Arts, of Spoleto Italy, and La MaMa. It is based on a poem by Ellen Stewart, La MaMa's founder and director, who is also credited for the production's vocal score.
Among the episodes represented by this production, spectators familiar with the Old Testament account of Abraham's life will recognize the prophet's journey out of Mesopotamia to Canaan, the births of Ishmael and Isaac, and the conflict between their respective mothers, Hagar and Sarah. Those more familiar with Islamic tradition will recognize the Qur'anic account of Abraham's destruction of the idols of Ur, and his subsequent punishment by the Mesopotamian monarch Nimrod, by which Abraham is cast into an enormous pyre, where he remains unharmed for days. A variation of this episode is also recounted in the midrashim, rabbinical commentary on texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. [You can find background about the story of Abraham here, here, and here.]
As the production's title suggests, the theme of fraternal strife is emphasized throughout, and the source provides no shortage of material for such emphasis: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Joseph and his brothers...
The Annex at La MaMa is configured in proscenium fashion for this production, with the generous playing space left bare, save for a half-dozen or so empty clay pots flanking the stage at either side. Suspended above the playing area, an enormous white disc, tilted at a slight angle toward the audience, displays video projections designed by Jan H. Klug, also the production's electronic music composer. The still and animated images employed range from a starry firmament to the ring of fire in which Abraham stands in the pyre sequence. Projections are employed elsewhere throughout the piece, most notably as the figures of the idols Abraham destroys, projected onto rough, brown paper figures stuffed with straw, which swing down from above the heads of the audience.
The piece is performed in Serbian, with a pre-recorded English narration accompanying the action. For dialogue sections, unreliable supertitles are projected onto a screen to the side of the stage, designed to resemble an oversized and ancient book. The supertitles are often not in sync with the dialogue onstage and disappeared altogether about halfway through the performance I attended.
Though great pains have clearly been taken in realizing the media design and soundscape for Brothers, the performance of the acting ensemble has received significantly less attention. Under the uninspired direction of Andrea Paciotto, the production has been misled by the heroic character of its subject, taking itself far too seriously to achieve any kind of accessibility. The acting ensemble seems to have been instructed to play everything with extreme gravity, making its reluctant efforts at stylization awkward at best. The slow-motion march towards Canaan, for example, accompanied by a driving electric guitar, is comical in its accidental conjuring of the opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs. The births of Ishmael and Isaac—cloth bundles passed through the legs of actors playing their mothers—are so rigid that an otherwise satisfying, if hackneyed, bit of staging becomes stillborn. Fight choreography by Simo Vuković between the actors playing Isaac and Ishmael is equally lifeless.
The finest moments in Brothers are musical. Percussion, violin, and other instruments are skillfully performed live by Marko Zoranović, mingling with the production's less persuasive electronic score, and the acting ensemble's purposeful and well-balanced performance of the vocal score is at times extremely moving. Costumes by Ivana Jovanović are an appropriate blending of elements of traditional Islamic and modern dress.
In spite of its well-intentioned aims to illuminate the fundamental human drives that underlie contemporary political conflicts, and to rescue a "spiritual sense" of the theatre, Brothers seems too preoccupied with its own technical wizardry to invest much time in the vivid rendering of character or the cultivation of a compelling ensemble performance. This oversight leaves that which is most "human" in the production underdeveloped and renders the production itself underwhelming.