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LETTERS TO EDITOR
Ms. Knight is J.S., an Upper East Side New York psychiatrist who, as a member of a presidential commission goes to a Bosnian refugee camp to help women deal with their traumas. Hers is the most fully realized and evolving character in Eve Ensler's generally disappointing new play based on her taped interviews at a Bosnian camp she visited in 1995. Though even the portrait of J.S. is embellished with stereotypical flourishes, Ms. Knight manages to bring genuine warmth and humor to what might otherwise feel as if patched together from countless bits and pieces of foreigners abroad short stories and films.
Diane Venora is deservedly given co-star billing. As Zlata, an angry and embittered doctor who, like Knight's psychologist, undergoes some change by the play's end, is the most interesting and well played of the five women representing the population of the camp. Her account of the decapitations that included her parents is particularly horrendous in light of the horrible killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Verona's and Knight's final scenes together give us a glimpse of the depth Ms. Ensler aims for but only occasionally achieves.
So what's wrong with the rest of this new work by the playwright whose demystification of the vagina has made her one of our most influential feminists and good cause fund raisers (e.g. V-Day to end violence against women)? Considering that both Les Gutman and I, as well as numerous other critics, found the account of a young Bosnian rape victim the most moving of the monologues, this expansion of that theme into a full-length drama about five traumatized women should be five times as moving. Unfortunately the process of distilling these taped interviews doesn't add up to a focused drama; worse yet the play reduces the women to animated clips from a Sunday supplement sob story or a made-for-T.V. movie. The dramatic revelations that have some of the impact of that Vagina Monologue Bosnian segment come too late to make this the honest, significant work of nuance and poignancy it aims to be.
The play, which premiered at the Hartford Stage, is again directed by that company's artistic director Michael Wilson. Maybe the women Ensler met really were Americanized through TV, but the way Wilson allows them to slip in and out of accents (mostly out) underscores the lack of authenticity of Ensler's characterizations. If ever a play needed a dialect coach, this is it.
The red-headed Maria Thayer's Nuna doesn't just yearn for all things American, but looks and sounds as if she's already landed on our shores and enrolled in a local high school. Sally Parrish, as an old farm woman named Azra who at one point of the play tries to bury herself, delivers virtually accent free one-liners as if she were trying out for a part on a sitcom aimed at the over 50 market. Alyssa Bresnahan gets to play a Bosnian Anna Magnani type with an abusive husband. With even Ms. Venora occasionally forgetting her accent, only Mirjana Jokovic who is Yugoslavian, relives Seada's tragic secret with an authentic and consistent foreign accent
Catherine Kellner as Melissa is the play's other American. She has been assigned to assist J. S. but views her role in a much more important light. Her journeys as a trauma counsellor to this and other refugee camps are obviously fuelled by ambition rather than compassion. The women are, as Zlata angrily puts it, "necessary targets" whose tragedies she will turn into stories. Melissa does indeed plan to use her tapes as the basis for a book. She is the play's stand-in for the ugly American journalist. It's evident that Ensler wants to distance herself from the Melissas of this war- torn world for whom suffering is an open sesame to career opportunity. Even though, like Melissa, she went to Bosnia equipped with a tape recorder, her sympathies are with the psychologist. Though initially all cool professional, J.S. is truly moved by the women and consequently connects with them on a meaningful level. She is also personally changed so that it's doubtful if she can really go back to treating patients who don't really change but "learn through the language of therapy to move their neuroses around."
The Americans' visit to the camp spans a little more than a week. J.S. arrives expecting to stay in a reasonably comfortable hotel but learning that she will be staying right in the camp. She is sweaty and uncomfortable, and proper. The opening of her suitcase packed with obsessive neatness and inappropriate clothes illustrates how Ms. Knight can turn the obvious into something special. She does so again and again, in her confrontations with Melissa and in a scene where she tosses her "rules and borders" and gets drunk with the women.
Jeff Cowie's set is aptly dreary and Howell Binkley's lighting adds to the aura of drabness. Composer John Gromada gets an assist from Shirley Knight who wrote the music for "Rest a While" a lullaby she sings to the young mother who has started to see her as her mother. (Could it be that Ms. Knight blinded herself to the shortcomings of the role written for her for the chance to sing a song she wrote?).
No doubt Ms. Ensler has become enough of a force to make anything she writes something to which attention will be paid. But even the audience members manipulated into shedding a few tears and Ensler devotees will find it difficult to pay more than passing attention to anyone except Ms. Venora and the cliche-transcending Ms. Knight.
LINKS TO PLAYS MENTIONED
The Young Man From Atlanta
The Vagina Monologues
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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