nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 9, 2006
Here are two provocative, emotionally-charged plays from foreign countries that are being presented in repertory by Immigrants' Theatre Project and Ian Morgan; they have little in common besides their intensity, their quality, and (in the broadest terms) their subject matter, which is the disintegration of families in times of crisis. They represent what indie theater does best—showcasing challenging, difficult drama that commercial/mainstream producers seem loathe to ever put before audiences, despite the fact that audiences crave this kind of work. Both are absolutely worth your time.
Heresy, by Mexican playwright Sabina Berman, is set in what was then the colony of New Spain (i.e., Mexico) in the late 1500s. Luis de Carbajal, a striving Spaniard, has been commissioned by King Phillip to found a colony in the New World. Luis brings a boatload of relatives with him, and they seem to adapt well to their new surroundings. But most of them have carried with them a secret: they are Jews, conversos, families who practice the religion of their ancestors privately and oh-so-discretely, while publicly claiming to be Catholics so as not to come to the attention of the Inquisition.
The play trades in a number of issues that feel resonant and timely, notably the awful dilemma of whether to inform on one's family members and associates (as the Inquisitors demand) in order to (maybe) save one's own skin. But my sense is that Berman is mainly investigating something even more fundamental than that here: she's probing the question of when (or whether) deep-seated faith can ever be cast aside for the sake of expedience or survival. Two of the characters in Heresy in particular—Luis's nephew, also called Luis, and his niece, Isabel—seem incapable of renouncing their religion, at any cost; for them, nothing in the material world is worth more than their souls. Are they irrational fanatics, as we sometimes wish to brand martyrs; or is their belief as real as the survival instinct that motivates so many others of us?
Director Marcy Arlin (who is the artistic director of Immigrants' Theatre Project) approaches Berman's complicated, dense play with a variety of interesting staging ideas, some of which work beautifully (e.g., having the actors remain on stage throughout most of the play, entering from the sidelines as they're needed) and some of which feel a bit heavy-handed (e.g., the use of masks for certain characters, such as the Inquisitors). To her great credit, though, Arlin lays bare the issues and themes of Heresy and yields them up for our contemplation. Her very large cast includes a number of standout performances, including Morteza Tavakoli as the younger Luis de Carbajal, Andrew Eisenman as a hapless victim of the Jews' deception named Jesús Baltazár, and Kathryn Kates in several roles.
The Word Progress On My Mother's Lips Doesn't Ring True was written in French by Romanian author Mátei Visniec; it's directed here by Ian Morgan in a potent, stark production that reminds American audiences, among other things, how fortunate we are not to live in an active battle zone like the Balkans. Progress is set in an unspecified country in that region of the world; a country that could be Bosnia or Serbia or Kosova because it has been in the throes of war for such a long and terrible time. Now peace has come at last, and the country is "free," whatever that means; Visniec begins the play proper with a remarkable monologue delivered by a soldier who seems to value the arbitrary white line on the ground that designates the newly-defined border of his country more than the lives and dignities of the refugees who are returning to live in it.
Two story lines thread through Visniec's play. The first concerns a young man who died in the war whose parents have returned from exile to their battered old farmhouse to find his remains. The story is sad and compelling on its own, but the playwright ups the ante significantly and surprisingly by having the dead young man converse with us and his parents: we're seeing the ruined country from his point of view, representing the unnamed thousands whose bodies lie heaped under the soil, victims of countless wars. Daniel Talbott is enormously affecting as this son, and his excellent performance is matched by those of Elizabeth West as his mother and James Himelsbach as his father.
The second tale recounted here is of a young woman from another country, who speaks some other language, who has taken up a life of prostitution to survive. Trouble is, she's picked a street corner that's the domain of a transvestite hooker named Caroline, who has a powerful pimp; eventually the pimp and another procurer sign up the strange young woman to work for both of them. But she crosses a line (I won't say what she does; it's a brilliant surprise) and eventually both of her bosses force her to leave. There is no happy ending. Andrew Eisenman (as Caroline), Aubrey Levy (the pimp), and Jelena Stupljanin (the girl) do splendid work bringing this group of characters to life.
Morgan's staging of Progress feels exemplary, again letting the play simply breathe and have its say, without explication or adaptation to make its foreignness feel less forbidding to the American audience. He solves one particular problem in Visniec's script—the need for one of the characters to dig a succession of holes in the ground—quite neatly and brilliantly.
Both Progress and Heresy use nontraditional theatricality to communicate with audiences intensely: these are plays that make us sad, but they also make us think and perhaps even compel us to discussion or action after they're over. We have much to learn from the drama created beyond the English-speaking world, as these two fine examples demonstrate. Bravo to Arlin and Morgan for bringing these to the New York stage.