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WAR AS HELL

Playwright Robert Shaver sets his new play, Slavia and Hugo, in a horrific, blood-smeared, body-littered clinic. An atmosphere of degradation and torture lurks, monsterlike, and with it the anti-war message of this harsh absurdist parable. War waged against civilians is the most atrocious war of all, and this ardent production...
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Playwright Robert Shaver sets his new play, Slavia and Hugo, in a horrific, blood-smeared, body-littered clinic. An atmosphere of degradation and torture lurks, monsterlike, and with it the anti-war message of this harsh absurdist parable. War waged against civilians is the most atrocious war of all, and this ardent production at the Changing Scene has moments of fierce clarity, despite an inclination toward obscurity.

Shaver doesn't really cover new ground in this play--the victims are pawns in some maniacal game, the innocent are martyred for absurd causes and so on. But in his attempt to awaken public consciousness about the underlying causes of war, Shaver musters up some authentic passion.

As the play begins, a cheerful, pretty young woman known only as the Binder leads the blindfolded Hugo on stage and sits him in a wheelchair. The man's hands are tied behind him, and he is not allowed to speak. He can only nod yes or no to the many questions she asks him. Her considerate ministrations become more transparently cruel as she prepares him for some unspecified but manifestly awful fate. Hugo is an intellectual--his books, we learn, have been burned before his eyes. We do not know why he is here, or if he is accused of any particular crime. But it is clear he is to be made a sacrificial victim. Since he's at her mercy anyway, the Binder tries to use him for sex, but he turns from her in silent abhorrence.

In an identical room somewhere else in this unnamed building, a cheerful, attractive young man leads another blindfolded and bound victim to a wheelchair, and a similar process begins. Wheelchair-bound Slavia is a worker who's volunteered to sacrifice his life to end "the conflict." Like his counterpart Hugo, however, his dignity is stripped from him by the veiled threats of his Binder, whose extremist religious rhetoric evokes the recent Serbian atrocities in Bosnia.

Eventually, both victims are set against each other and, despite the politically instilled distrust between the intellectual and proletarian, try to communicate. In a dark twist, however, they have been made to believe that whoever speaks his name last will be the one remembered.

Eric Weber's eloquent silence as Hugo is the most affecting thing in the show. Even blindfolded, he manages to communicate fear and loathing. John Reynolds plays Slavia for pathos--a deluded patriot who wants to be a hero. Most of the time it works. Amy Rutledge as nasty Binder No. 1 lends a genuine insidiousness to the whole show. Her chipper indifference to suffering, threaded through with implied sadism, is chilling. Randall L. Diamon as Binder No. 2 makes a fairly evil twin, and Deborah L. Voss's intelligent direction paces the actors carefully and keeps their movements constrained--the effect is appropriately claustrophobic and savage.

Shaver paints his disgust about the real motives for war--self-interest, nationalism, greed, religious fanaticism--in broad strokes of anger. But underlying the anger lurks, perhaps, a strand of compassion for human frailty. Crippled, blinded and controlled by others, the two victims might easily have succored each other, but instead they capitulate to powerful forces they don't understand.

This is a difficult play--absurdist theater is always a bit far removed from normal emotional responses. And analogies can only go so far. Shaver gives the two victims recognizable personality traits and basic decency--so why don't they just defy their captors, rip off their blindfolds and shoot the Binders? The play argues that we are all responsible for atrocities like these but, like virtually all other anti-war dramas, fails to offer any authentic suggestions as to what to do about it. Perhaps one day someone will shed some actual light on the subject.

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