From the moment you enter the LIDA Project's theater space, your attention is focused on the set: a large square of earth that dwarfs the seats surrounding it on all four sides. Clearly representing a city lot, it reminded me of the bomb sites found all over London when I was growing up there after the war. But it also exhales the sweet scent of wet soil. Broken-down bits of furniture are strewn about, along with trash and tattered pieces of cloth. Bare brown twigs wave forlornly. In one corner, there's a crude edifice made of taped-together cardboard boxes.
Four children play in this dreary sandbox that is the set for Family Stories: Belgrade. Actually, they're adult actors pretending to be children. Three of them act out the roles of mother, father and son in a viciously dysfunctional family. The fourth -- played by Mare Trevathan Philpott -- is a grunting mute who eventually takes on the role of family dog. The father, Vojin, routinely hits his play wife and child; we tremble for the fate of the dog. At the end of each scene, the son, Andirja, finds a new way of killing his parents. But by the next scene, the family unit is again intact. The violence in this production isn't stylized, and it's upsetting to watch, but it's also broad, cartoon-like and farcical.
The performers don't impersonate children in any realistic way, nor does playwright Biljana Srbljanovic's script attempt realism. The characters' thoughts may be partially formed and irrational, but they express them in the vocabulary of adults, or at least of highly precocious eleven-year-olds. Of course, children do parrot what they hear, and you expect the disjunction between comments like "It's normal that the papa hits the mama" and a kid's obliviousness to the words' full awfulness. The children's rapid and illogical changes of mood are more like those of four-year-olds, however, and the actors behave physically like very small children. But these discrepancies don't really matter. All of the actors have found a way of being that works on the stage -- a fusion between the most atavistic parts of their adult selves and their understanding of what it means to be children. Kelley Wade, playing Milena, is, for the most part, deceptively calm and adult, though occasionally her tone is babyish and her expression uncomprehending. Robin Davies, who as Vojin imposes his will by alternately sulking and threatening, rocks and sways, pitches and poses like an escapee from Bedlam. Portraying the son, Andirja, Chris Tabb tends toward a lumpish sullenness that's occasionally brightened by curiosity.
The location of the play feels like nowhere; it's reminiscent of the landscape in Waiting for Godot or King Lear's blasted heath. Here are children, apparently completely untended, acting out any impulse that crosses their minds and parodying grown-up conventions. Grieving over her husband's prone body after Andirja has killed him yet again, rocking and keening in the approved dramatic manner, Milena wonders aloud whose blows she'll receive now and whose shit she'll clean up. The script mocks any hope of transcendence: When Milena tries writing, then tosses sheets of paper into the air and exclaims that they look like white birds, Andirja shoots them down. It's clear in Family Stories: Belgrade that all private relationships have been corrupted by the corruption of the government.
The play owes much to the theater of the absurd. While its words make literal sense, they're emotionally and contextually nonsensical; meaning resides more in the dynamics between the characters. Like the children they are -- but also like mad adults -- the four of them change moods and alliances with frightening unpredictability. Milena adopts Nadezda, the dog, shows her a contemptuous kindness and then loses all interest in her. Andirja torments the hungry creature by gobbling scraps of chocolate in front of her; later, he and she wordlessly bond. The need for community survives even here. Somehow these monstrous forgotten children find a way to create a family, even bringing the vulnerable mute/dog under its protection. At the same time, they reveal how dangerous -- and endangered -- that family can be.
Family Stories illuminates the implied contract between a state and its citizens. There are words that fix the play's specific time and place: "Clinton," "the Hague," "Milosevic," as well as references to the demonstrations that galvanized Belgrade in 1996-97. "Something was stolen from us, the people," says one of the children.
Srbljanovic has acknowledged her indebtedness to Bertolt Brecht. It's there in the basic detachment you feel from these characters, as well as in the Brechtian moments of repetition and ritual. Most of all, when the dog-girl finally speaks in the climactic last scene, we remember Kattrin, the mute daughter of Mother Courage, standing on the roof of her mother's wagon, frantically beating a drum to warn the village of danger.
All of the acting in the LIDA Project production is first-rate. Wade is a strong and affecting Milena and Davies a gleefully demented Vojin. Tabb's Andirja shows a convincing mix of cunning and innocence. As Nadezda, Philpott offers a courageous, all-stops-out and well-observed performance. The fact that everyone's accent convinces must be credited to vocal coach Lisa Mumpton. Karie Wyckoff's costumes give new meaning to the term "distressed fabric," and Paul Cure's music haunts. The effectiveness of the set has already been mentioned; it's the creation of Nils Kiehn.
This is old Europe speaking to us of miseries and privations few Americans have had to endure. But the world is drawing closer and closer. After World War II, wildflowers took over the bomb sites of London. No one had ever before seen so many and of such variety. It had something to do with the ash in the soil.
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