February 01, 2011

Hope Amidst the "Ruined"

Huntington Theatre Company presents a gripping production of Lynn Nottage’s "Ruined," the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that takes an unflinching look at the savagery of war and sees survival

“Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the ability of Congolese women to survive unimaginable brutality at the hands of countrymen at war, is both repulsive and riveting – and not to be missed. Josephine, Sophie and Salima in Huntington's "Ruined"Nottage, director Liesl Tommy, and the entire Huntington Theatre cast have managed to do the impossible. They have embraced the indestructible humanity that enables the world to maintain hope while exposing the unspeakable savagery that continues to run rampant throughout East Africa – despite an “official” end to that region’s catastrophic civil war in 2002.

Through the voices of the play’s victimized women, “Ruined” speaks for all women who somehow manage to hold onto their courage, faith, and ability to dream even in the face of rape, torture, kidnapping and abandonment. They also speak for the Congo itself, whose land and resources are equally destroyed by foreign exploiters and warring tribes. Alternately punishing and poetic, Nottage’s script shocks the breath out of the audience one minute and elicits tears of hope the next.

At the center of “Ruined” is Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano), a street-smart, no-nonsense, wise-cracking matron whose ramshackle barroom/brothel serves as a fragile oasis amidst the Congo’s overwhelming chaos. Mama maintains a meager civility in her tiny corner of the world by taking no side but her own, serving customers of all persuasions as long as they park their guns – and their politics – at the door. Befriending all, she courts respect from government militia, rebel freedom fighters, indentured coltan miners, and outside opportunists who gain substantial wealth by fencing valuable conflict minerals to the world’s biggest technology firms.

Mama also provides a safe haven of sorts to young refugee women whom she presses into service as prostitutes in exchange for food, shelter, and a very small percentage of the take. Her approach is a simple one. Christian and Mama Nadi in Huntington's "Ruined"Either sell yourself in a controlled environment or be raped and tortured on your own. While Mama’s pragmatism at first appears cold and self-serving, it ultimately proves to be an essential survival mechanism – for herself and all the women in her tenuous care.

The delicate balance that Mama maintains in her modest retreat is disrupted, however, when Christian (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), her affable traveling salesman/supplier, prevails upon her to take in two new young women, Sophie (Carla Duren) and Salima (Pascale Armand). Both victims of devastating horror at the hands of marauding soldiers and subsequent rejection by their families for being thusly “ruined,” the unassuming girls unwittingly draw the war inside Mama Nadi’s by taking determined stands against further indignities.

Duren, Armand, and Zainab Jah as Josephine, once a tribal princess now also harbored at Mama Nadi’s, give magnificent performances, painting unflinching portraits of abduction and mutilation in one breath and sharing girlishly innocent romantic fantasies in the next. They each reveal a core of indefatigable dignity beneath their horrific scars and unrelenting fears. They also, remarkably, find moments of joy and humor. Patano as Mama is a tower of self-made strength, determined and confident in the emotional armor she has built for herself but ever aware that her house of cards could come toppling down in one violent wind. She allows herself no illusions of a better life. To dream would be to become vulnerable to feelings. Whenever Christian’s flirtations threaten to soften her resistance, she deflects his attentions with affectionate derision.

As Christian Adjepong is Everyman of the Congo, the morally upright individual trying to survive the fray by remaining neutral on the fringes. His balance is disrupted, too, however, when the frightening Simon and Fortune in Huntington's "Ruined"Commander Osembenga (Adrain Roberts) of the government militia forces him off the wagon and into a downward spiral – not into a brainless stupor but rather ironically into a rebellious clarity that sharpens instead of numbs his pain. Adjepong makes Christian’s torment as gut-wrenching as he makes his exuberant charms delightful. He is the kind of thoughtful and considerate man upon whom the Congo’s hopeful future will depend.

Underscoring the tragedy and triumph in “Ruined” is haunting music performed by a guitarist and a percussionist (Alvin Terry and Adesoji Odukogbe) who remain seated on an elevated nightclub stage throughout the play. Their playing can be tender and sweet when the angelic young Sophie sings of the sun and the stars, or they can suddenly turn jubilant African rhythms into dark pulsating beats when soldiers turn sexually charged dance numbers into ugly ominous attacks. And it doesn’t matter which soldiers are in Mama Nadi’s at any given time. Government militia or rebel insurgents, they’re two sides of the same coin. Their uniforms may be different, but their inhumane actions are the same. It’s no coincidence that the same actors double as opposing forces.

Ultimately “Ruined” graphically depicts the incomprehensibly destructive power of war and greed that turns a majestic country into a wasteland and innocent women and children into spoils of war. But miraculously, it also conveys the unrelenting power of hope that drives the human spirit to survive. Even when an oasis crumbles, humanity and dreams stay alive.

PHOTOS BY KEVIN BERNE: Zainab Jah as Josephine, Carla Duren as Sophie, and Pascale Armand as Salima Salima; Oberon K.A. Adjepong as Christian and Tonye Patano as Mama Nadi; Okieriete Onaodowan as Simon and Jason Bowen as Fortune


January 11, 2011

Hate-Speak Has Consequences

Words DO make an impact

In the wake of the shocking Arizona shootings and the ensuing concern that political hate-speak may be a factor in such tragedies, the response from the extreme right has been – what else? – more inflammatory hate-speak. (“Radio Hosts: We Won’t Back Down,” Boston Herald, January 11, 2011). Of course mass murderer Jared Lee Loughner did not receive directly, in the sneering words of WXKS shock jock Jeff Katz, “messages from Sarah Palin or talk radio” to go out and attempt the assassination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. What he DID receive, however, was continued exposure to the hostile, disrespectful, snide and even slanderous climate that pollutes the American airwaves today. Such authorized – and subsidized – animosity surely creates a ripple effect of ill will.

No, most civilized people do not go on a rampage when exposed to such incessant ranting. But we all react to the negativity to some extent. We may yell back at the radio, shake our heads in disgust (or assent), or simply turn the dial. Hopefully we also try to counteract the anger by being kind to our neighbors and teaching our children the Golden Rule. Those who are disenfranchised, downtrodden, beaten or mentally ill, however, may act out more demonstratively – and with dire consequences.

Words have power. Witness the spate of teenage suicides prompted by merciless taunts and bullying. Today words also have tremendous reach. The internet has made commentary, for good or ill, pervasive and eternal.

Those in power – politicians, educators, and media spokespersons – need to understand the responsibility they shoulder every time they address the public. They are our leaders, our role models, our barometers of civility and humanity. If they behave like arrogant bullies on the playground, how can they expect their constituents to behave any better? We ask our children to practice tolerance and understanding. We should ask – no, demand – no less of our elected officials.

We are a society of individuals whose actions affect others. Sometimes consequences are dramatic and self-evident. The results of Jared Lee Loughner’s rampage are indisputable. But sometimes the more subtle consequences are just as damaging.

It’s time to start looking at hate-speak as verbal abuse. It’s time for those of us who listen in silence to put our own thoughts into words. Enough is enough.


January 08, 2011


Broadway's Tangled Web

Broadway’s beleaguered new musical Spider-Man – with its much-ballyhooed spectacle, record-breaking $65-million price tag, Spider-Man Marquis and Artand four dramatic injuries to major cast members within four weeks – may turn out to be the best thing to hit the Great White Way in decades. Oh, artistically this brainchild of U2’s Bono, the Edge, and director Julie Taymor may crash and burn once bono fide theater critics are finally invited to see what all the hoopla is about. For now, however, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is attracting sell-out preview audiences and putting Broadway in a spotlight that even the best publicists and marketing pros couldn’t have manufactured.

Bad press – if there really is such a thing – has been swirling around Spider-Man for months. First, producers couldn’t raise enough capital to make the show fly, so the original opening, set for February 2010, was delayed indefinitely. This resulted in the loss of two key Hollywood cast members: Alan Cumming as the Green Goblin and Evan Rachel Wood as Mary Jane Watson.

Then rock impresario Michael Cohl stepped in as lead producer and tapped music industry pals for funds. Extensive renovations to the Spider_Man, Green Goblin and Mary JaneFoxwoods Theatre – needed to accommodate the never-before-seen flying sequences planned by Taymor – were completed, and new (lesser known) Broadway actors were cast in the roles vacated by the high-profile stars. A new opening was set for the fall of 2010 and it looked like Spider-Man would actually take flight.

Unfortunately, ongoing technical problems postponed the opening two more times. Costs continued to climb, and then two Spider-Man stunt doubles were injured while demonstrating dramatic flying maneuvers. One crashed into a wall, breaking both wrists. The other landed too hard and fast on the floor, breaking both feet.

Despite these setbacks, Taymor and company appeared on 60 Minutes and proclaimed confidently that there is no art without risk. The show finally began previews on November 28, but that very night lead actress Natalie Mendoza, starring as spider villainess Arachne, suffered a concussion when struck backstage by a rope holding a piece of heavy equipment. On December 30 she left the production citing the need to continue her recovery.

Natalie Mendoza with Spider_Man Reeve Carney and as ArachneThe most chilling blow to the show, however, came on December 20 when lead Spider-Man stunt double Christopher Tierney took an unplanned death-defying leap from an elevated set piece. As he jumped forward off the “bridge,” the cable securing him to the platform let go. Tierney fell almost 30 feet into the orchestra pit, sustaining a fractured skull, a broken scapula, four broken ribs, a bruised lung, three fractured vertebrae, a broken elbow, and internal bleeding. Had he not had the presence of mind to tuck and roll prior to hitting the floor, he would have landed on his head and probably have died.

Since then Tierney has become the poster child for Spider-Man. He has undergone major back surgery and expects to make a full recovery. In interviews and television appearances, he cheerfully says he can’t wait to return to the show. Christopher Tierney and his fallOnce he is cleared from rehab, he wants to get back in his harness and again careen from rafter to rafter at upwards of 50 mph.

Maybe Tierney should be wearing a red cape and sporting a big bold S on his chest. He is unquestionably one super spokesperson.

As of this writing the official red carpet opening of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is set for February 7. (EDIT: Opening night has been postposed again till March 15.) Actor’s Equity Association, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and the New York State Department of Labor have all given the show the green light after demanding that stricter safety measures be put in place. Since the show reopened on December 22, no further accidents have been reported.

So how, exactly, is all this arachnophobia good for Broadway?

Quite simply, the harsh glare that has been shining on Spider-Man has finally illuminated problems that have been plaguing the industry for years.

  1. Theater actors, especially dancers, have a much higher job-related injury rate than most people in other fields. Stage fights, pratfalls, special effects, and repetitive stress all put actors at greater risk than the average Joe. Perhaps the collective outrage that has been expressed within the Broadway community over the excessive dangers inherent in this production will translate into more vigilant protocols and fail safe systems being implemented for all shows.
  2. For years now producers have been charging full price for preview performances despite the fact that shows in previews are still works-in-progress. Performances are commonly stopped to work out technical glitches, and what’s seen in previews is often a pale imitation of what is seen on the official opening night. Theater regulars know and understand this process and buy tickets accordingly. However, roughly 65% of all Broadway audiences are made up of tourists. They may not necessarily know when they are buying tickets to a preview. Therefore, prompted by Spider-Man’s repeated delays, exorbitant budget, high profile, and extensive problems, public advocates are now suggesting that any show’s advertising should be very clear about the nature of the show that people are buying. After all, if producers consider a show unfit for theater critics to review before it is frozen, then it is only fair that preview ticket buyers be advised that they may not be seeing a finished product.
  3. According to numerous theater fans who have been posting on blogs, message boards, and social networks, all the special effects in the world aren’t going to save Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark from being a huge artistic disappointment. Reports consistently suggest that its book, lyrics and score are dark, dull, and incomprehensible. One friend who saw the show recently called it unsalvageable. Spider-ManGiven the immensely complicated sets, costumes, flying sequences, and special effects, the show is reportedly an unruly behemoth that would require months of reworking – and millions of additional dollars – to make good on its lofty promise. At this late date, can changes that would make the story more coherent and the music more engaging realistically be incorporated? Given the massively technical nature of the show, probably not. Of course, despite its problems, the spectacle that is Spider-Man may continue to attract sell-out audiences. Only time will tell if the sporadic thrills induced by the thought of an accident waiting to happen are enough to keep people satisfied. But wouldn’t it be grand if the Spider-Man saga ended up encouraging Broadway movers and shakers to return their creative focus first and foremost to telling really good stories? Production values should visually interpret and enhance the material, not overwhelm it. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that less really can be more.

As the original Spider-Man of comic book fame taught us: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Julie Taymor and company, are you listening?



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