Death in Mozambique
nytheatre.com review by Brad Lee Thomason
July 16, 2009
The action of Death in Mozambique takes place in a lonely bar called "Freedom" in the city of Beira, on the very day that a treaty was signed ending the nation's bloody, 16-year-long civil war. It is an interesting setting, however unlikely it may be that the bar is owned and operated by American ex-patriot Joachim (or John, as he's known in the States) and staffed by his lover Graca, a native of Mozambique with a troubled past as a prostitute. Many threats have come to the Freedom bar: The match between Joachim and Graca is socially unacceptable; a Russian soldier named Vlad is also vying for Graca's affection, and to make matters worse bar owner Joachim has a dicey history of his own. He and his best friend from childhood, (another American who now tours the world as a Christian missionary) robbed a store at gunpoint some many years ago, which is the reason behind Joachim's flight from the States and why we now find him here; running a bar called Freedom at the very dawn of Mozambique's possibly bright future. Are you with me so far?
The play opens on an energetic note with the boisterous Matthew Marumba, who is simply listed in the program as "Man," dancing and banging tables joyfully through the bar. Marumba is entertaining and engaging in all of his short scenes, and is the best element in the play that ties it to its East African setting. I certainly would have loved to have seen more of him. However, as soon as he leaves problems start arising.
Most of them lie in the work of young playwright Jonathan Alexandratos. The historical context is mainly piped in through contrived dialogue filled with heavy-handed propaganda about revolution and repeated cliches like, "never let them see you sweat"; a strange statement considering the play takes place in a hot African climate where it is virtually impossible to never let them see you sweat. Although Namakula, the young woman who plays Graca, certainly gives a passionate and valiant effort; I feel all of the characters need more development and their relationships need more definition for me to have any sympathy for them at the end.
Another serious issue is the staging. The Cherry Pit is a lovely and intimate venue set in a deep three-quarter thrust, but director Mike Rutenberg stages the entire play to the center, as if we were sitting in a proscenium, and all but completely abandons audience in the left and right sections. I was sitting in one of the side sections and there were many times when the characters were all in a straight line from my view, making it impossible to see or even at times hear action on the opposite side of the stage. Since so much of the play is exposition about each character's history, it's important to hear these quiet conversations to fully understand the plot, and it's not always easy.
Dan Pelonis, who plays Joachim, didn't quite convince me of his characters struggle or believably offer a convincing reason why he opened a bar in Mozambique to begin with. The text doesn't help him much but he seems far too complacent throughout the play, especially considering the element of danger that is looming over the bar from the very beginning. The two Russian officers played by Jean Neftin and Jan Di Pietro are both lively and genuine, but their relationship with Joachim and Graca isn't made entirely clear. Obviously Vlad is quite hooked on Graca; but if Joachim even notices this he doesn't seem to care.
Death in Mozambique is not without compelling ideas; and the setting and characters certainly provide potential for an interesting story. Unfortunately, here the characters never truly feel like real people and the storytelling itself lacks the action to make any of these ideas come to life.