“Honey Brown Eyes” by Stefanie Zadravec at Theater J

It makes no sense.  It is Bosnia in 1992.  There is a war going on.  The Serbs have invaded.  Christians are on one side; Muslims on the other.  Looking at the Bosnians, you can’t tell who is Christian or who is Muslim.  They look the same.  The talk the same.  They used to be friends.

The Serbs are kicking the Muslims out of Vishnegrad.  They are clearing apartment blocks and torching them.   It is unstated, but it appears that the men are directed one way (most likely to their death) and the women (including young girls) another way, where they are to sexually abused and tortured.  Alma’s apartment is entered by Dragon.  His job is to get her and her daughter out and into a van.  Alma says she has no daughter; Dragon does not believe her.  And that is when the fun starts.

But it turns out that, although not recognizing each other at first, Dragon and Alma are not strangers.  Dragon is a musician; so is Alma’s brother Denis, and they used to be in the same band.  Alma came often to hear them play; Dragon had a crush on her.  Alma is Moslem; Dragon is Christian.

Their relationship this one day in Vishengrad is uncomfortable, and complicated, and very tragic.

At the same time, Denis has deserted from the Moslem resistance; his infant son has been killed and his wife has hanged herself.  He takes refuge in an apartment in Sarajevo in the middle of a war zone.  The apartment belongs to an older woman, Jovanka, a Christian whose daughter and grandson have left her to die as they walk to Croatia, hopefully to catch a boat to Italy.  Denis has no idea what his sister is going through at this very instance, nor that his sister’s tormentor is his old band mate, Dragon.

You don’t learn much about the politics behind this war.  You just know that it shouldn’t be this way, but it is.

The play is very well written.  Its message comes across strongly.  But the stars of the evening are the actors – Alexander Strain as Dragon, Maia DeSanti as Alma, Joel Ruben Ganz as Denis and Barbara Rappaport as Jovanka.

This is a premiere performance of this new play.  My guess is that it has a good future in front of it.

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OK, Now Beyond the Friends

1.  Book.  I did read one book this week, an old Penguin mystery called Puzzle for Fiends, written in 1946 by Patrick Quentin (who according to the cover was actually two people).  I read this only because I wanted a book I could actually put in my pocket, and there it was (why I don’t know).  There is no real reason to read it, considering there are several millions of books to choose from: amnesiac victim is released from hospital into the care of his wife and mother (but of course they aren’t really his wife and mother, but they need to have their son back to get the money from their recently deceased husband/father’s will), and he is trying to figure out who they are and who he is and he sense something is wrong and he is sure it has something to do with his new and seductive ‘wife’, never dreaming that she is in fact innocent and that it is his wholesome ‘sister’ who killed both her father and her brother, and not learning this until he realizes that his broken arm and leg, both in casts, are not really broken and he can run and shoot and do every thing else a man should be able to do.  And, yes, he does find out his real identity on the second to last page of the book.

2.  Theater.  It is time for the Capitol Fringe Festival and our first venue was to see “Dorks on the Loose”, not a title that would normally attract us, except that the dorks are two of Hannah’s college roommates, and Hannah produced the show for Fringe.  It was a lot of fun and quite silly, and they are getting full houses (that means about 80 people: not bad) at the small Warehouse Theater space.  So, I said, ‘ok, I’ll go to see more Fringe’ and yesterday morning (noon), I went back to the Warehouse to see “Three Girls and a Man”, about a man whose wife has multiple personalities (three), and one of them wants to divorce him, and he doesn’t want her treated because he likes the variety (the accomplished feminist, the subservient fundamentalist wife, and the nymphomanic).  The premise had promise, I thought, but unfortunately it was a bad play, badly performed.   So be it.

3.  The poet.  Gary Snyder, now 78, is a very famous West Coast poet (friend of Ginsburg and Kerouac and others), who is also a student/expert of Buddhism and eastern art and culture, and has spent the last 40 years writing Endless Mountains and Rivers, an epic poem.  I had never heard of him.  We saw him at the Freer (he spoke in conjunction with the Yellow Mountain exhibit I wrote about several weeks ago), and he was interesting in speaking about his life (somewhat) and soporific when reading his poetry.  But then I find most poetry soporific.

4.  We had a very nice event for American Associates of Ben Gurion University this week with Mick Alkan, professor of community medicine, and Sirak Sabahat, of “Live and Become” fame, and a nice dinner with them both at Clyde’s before the session.  We also had a nice dinner at Oyamel with Hannah after ‘Dorks’.

So, we have not just been sitting around, I guess.

AAAAARRRRGGGH stands for ARGONAUTIKA

I know that Hannah thought this was a must-see. I know that Edie enjoyed it. And I saw that the audience last night at the Lansburgh Theatre tittered throughout and gave warm, if not explosive, applause at the end.

But for me, this was one of the most painful theatrical performances I have ever attended. I did not like it visually, but I could close my eyes. I hated the all too often loud cacophony, but there was nothing I could do about that.

First, I think that the idea of making the story of Jason and the Argonauts (which is not a story I particularly like in the first place) into a slapstick comedy is a bad one.

Second, I thought that the acting (and that probably means the casting) was atrocious. I would give the actor who played the role of Jason the award for worst lead performance in a major production in 2008, even though it is only the 3rd of March. And I don’t think that any of the female actors furthered their careers in this one.

The effects? I thought silly and amateurish, including the not very sophisticated puppetry (I usually like puppetry).

So, there you go. AAAAARRRGGGH.

Edie asked me if there was anything about it I liked, at all. I told her that I thought that the scene where the crew of the Argo introduced themselves to each other, a rap with percussion called “Roll Call” was cute and inviting (as was the reprise at the end of the play when “Roll Call” turned into “Curtain Call”. But did this one up beat rap number have anything (I mean ANYTHING) to do with the rest of the play? (I think you know my answer).

The actor who played Jason’s the uncle the king did a fine job, as did Hercules. But they were swamped by the problems of the others.

I Had Never Heard of Sabina Spielrein or Graziella Rossi. Now I Have

Graziella Rossi is a Swiss actress. Sabina Spielrein was a Russian-Jewish psychiatrist, killed by the Nazis during World War II, who was both very influential in her own right, and who was a patient of, and romantically involved with, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Lost for years, her papers recently resurfaced, and from them her early life in Rostow on the Don, through her illness and treatment by Jung in Zurich, her medical training, her relationship with Jung, her marriage, her work in the Soviet Union all became known, or re-known. A biography of her was written by Karsten Ainaes, and this play by Liv Hege Nylund was based on the book.

It is a mesmerizing story, remarkably performed by the actress who premiered the work in Zurich in German. Last night was apparently Rossi’s first performance of anything in English. She is a tremendous actress.

The play was performed in conjunction with the Swiss Embassy and the Jung Society of Washington at Theater J. A year or two ago, Theater J staged a play called “Hannah and Martin”, about the relationship between German philosopher Martin Heidegger and German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt. The similarities between the two situations are manifold. The difference: Arendt lived through the war (in America), while Spielrein was not so lucky.

All in a Day

1. The Book. I finished Paolo Maurensig’s short novel, The Luneburg Variation, and found it a worthwhile read. It takes place in Vienna, probably in the 1970s. Businessman Dieter Frisch is found dead, shot at close range in the temple. It appears to be a suicide, but Dieter Frisch gave no hint of being on the verge.

Flash back: Dieter Frisch, the young German master chess player, and Tabori, the young Austrian/Jewish master chess player. The early 1930s. The Nazis. 1938, Germany invades Austria. Kristallnacht. The rivals, Aryan and Jew, play to a draw in an important match.

Flash forward: German concentration/work camp. Frisch, the German officer. Tabori, the Jewish prisoner. The prisoner is saved because the officer wants to play chess. But it is a bargain with the devil.

The war ends. Time passes. Tabori returns to Vienna, an emotional wreck, hanging around chess halls, not playing. Frisch doesn’t play either, but becomes a successful banker. Both remain obsessed with the game.

Tabori has a young disciple. On his deathbed, he tells the disciple to find Frisch, and tell him what has happened since the war. He does. Frisch dies.

It’s a short book, compelling. Probably even more so if you understand the many specific references to specific chess games and plays.

2. The Play. “No Child”, a one-woman, one-act play that closes today at the Woolly Mammoth. Extraordinary performance the actor/writer Nilaja Sun, based on her experience as a part time drama instructor at an impoverished high school in the Bronx. She plays herself, the principal, the teacher, the janitor and the entire class. She is spectacular.

The play itself is a tragedy disguised as a comedy. How could the state of American education and culture fallen so low?

3. The Exhibit. Today was also the last day of the Marcel Breuer exhibit at the National Building Museum. Breuer was Hungarian Jewish Bauhaus architect and furniture designer. He started as a furniture designer, setting the mark for German modern furniture (of wood, leather, steel and aluminum) in the 1920s. In the 1930s he turned to architecture. His American projects include high rise buildings in Boston and Baltimore, the HUD and HHS buildings in DC, churches, synagogues, private houses and more. His specialty was the use of concrete as a building material, and designs which incorporated various geometric forms placed together often in unexpected ways. He has always been a favorite.

4. The Lunch. Camille’s, across from the MCI Center on F Street. A casual place for lunch. You order at the counter, they call your number, you pick up the food and carry it to your table. It is not expensive. It is slow. It is not very good.

5. The Dinner. Nela, a Mediterranean (read Lebanese) restaurant on N Street in Georgetown. It is pricey. I found it quite comfortable. It is fairly large. They have a fish special daily. Usually whatever white fish they can find, cooked whole, filleted for you, and served in a garlic broth with fresh vegetables. Today’s fish was bronzini. It was spectacular, and compares to the sea bream at Beni Dagim in Jerusalem.

Before I skip town, and for the record…..

I wanted to say that seeing The Brothers Size (starring three actors each of whom received MFAs at Yale in 2007) at the Studio was a treat, the asapao I had at Merkato before the show was a treat, listening to artist John Alexander at the Museum of American Art was a treat (although I don’t think that much of his artistic work – as the Post’s Blake Gopnik says, he is one of the 5000 best artists living in America today), the Baalbek cocktails I had last night at Lebanese Taverna was a treat.

I should also say that we will be away all week, and while postings are always possible, don’t be surprised if the next time you see one, it is next Sunday. When Michelle’s show will be a treat.

The Accident

Hillel Mittelpunkt’s play “The Accident” had a reading at Theater J this afternoon directed by Hannah. The cast was excellent, and I thought the play needed very little tweaking. I enjoyed in thoroughly.

After the reading, after I had expressed my thoughts, Hannah said that she did not know how much I would like the play, since it deals with so many things that I usually don’t like.

Like what, I asked?

Like gratuitous foul language, inappropriate romantic entanglements, and moral depravity, she answered.

I thought about that. She was correct, but I thought the play was great and (almost, in an exaggerated and sardonic way) realistic.

My conclusions: Maybe now I like foul language, inappropriate romantic entanglements, and moral depravity.

A Crowd Showed Up

Out of nowhere, over 100 people showed up at the Extreme Exchange/Inkwell political theater evening yesterday. Hannah is a member of EE, and reprised her wordless playlet of two years ago. The event took place at the H Street Playhouse (15th and H, NE), where I thought it was impossible to draw a crowd, because the neighborhood is both iffy and out of the way for everyone except for a portion of Capitol Hill residents. At the Forum productions there, I have seen audiences of 20-30. But last night, for whatever reason, a crown showed up.

After the performance, there was a talk back (which to be frank, I could have done without). One of the opening questions was: why wasn’t there more political theater in DC. My answer was simple: this is not a political town. Although some people told me they agreed with me later in the evening, no one agreed with me at the time. But many in the audience mix up government with politics. If you are a government worker and work with governmental policies, whether or not you agree or disagree violently with them, you are not in a position to create political theater. To create political theater, you need to be on the outside.

You also need a political audience. In DC, where there are no Congressional races whatsoever, where there is no active presidential primary, where the Democratic candidate is going to get 90% of the vote on election day, and where local government is (for better or for worse) so racially charged and racially segregated, you just cannot find a large political audience. In DC, you can protest, but so what? And without the possibility of the “so what?”, the protests lose their fervor.