note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
If I may continue with my metaphor of The Market Theater as one of our area's finer restaurants, then FAMILY STORIES is the first dish they've served that I send back to the kitchen. But even a great chef can have an off night. >
In a bombed-out pile of rubble, on the back of an abandoned trunk that serves as a makeshift stage, three Serbian children play house, with Vojin as “Papa”, Milena as “Mama” and Andrija as “Son” (and, occasionally, “Daughter”). “Papa” is a bully; “Mama” is a downtrodden housewife and “Son” is very much the juvenile delinquent. They are joined by Nadezda, a twitching, shell-shocked child (non-Serbian?) who is promptly cast as the family dog and chained to a trash can (shades of Beckett, here). Through the mouths and actions of her babes, playwright Biljana Srblijanovic attempts to mirror the tragedy of her country; since FAMILY STORIES would be incredibly grim if child actors were ever used (many of the sketches end in the parents’ “deaths”, often by their murderous son; in one scene, two of the children copulate onstage), Ms. Srblijanovic has adult actors play the children who in turn play the adults, adding a farcical slant to the whole affair. Unfortunately, Ms. Srblijanovic’s play, though much acclaimed worldwide, didn’t work for me, either as a political statement or as an evening of thought-provoking theatre.
Perhaps I’ve grown weary of the world being seen through the eyes of a child (or an animal or an outer space alien). Perhaps I dislike sitting through a 90-minute lesson that gets its point across in the first 10 minutes. Perhaps it may simply be a cultural difference (a Serbian couple sitting behind me repeatedly burst into laughter, while the majority of us simply sat there).
Or perhaps it was this particular production (a North American premiere), directed and played in so heavy a hand that the play’s fleeting seconds of gallows humor – here and there, like shafts of stunted grass -– were beaten down with a vengeance. (Imagine an evening of two clowns performing the “Make-Up! BAM!” routine over and over, and you’ll see what I mean.) Perhaps that’s what FAMILY STORIES really needs: clowns – European ones – who can conjure up the ghastly gaiety of the old Theatre of the Absurd days, instead of these four American and Very Serious actors who are playing for Realism (especially, the “Family Dog”, who is right out of MARAT/SADE). Either that, or go for the Grim and use child actors after all, and put us all through the Hell that Ms. Srblijanovic writes about.
Danielle Skraastad (the “Mama”) is well worth watching as an Actress, if not the characters she plays: tall, wonderfully inventive (she knows where the comedy lies hidden but is not allowed to dig for it), and both pretty and tomboyish all at once. Unfortunately, her co-actors have been coaxed to be as loud and (physically) repulsive as possible and, I’m sad to say, they’ve succeeded all too well. None of the actors – Ms. Skraastad included – convinced me they were children or children playing adults; there were yards and yards of blind fury, but where were the dignity, the frightened innocence, even the stoicism that children of war repeatedly betray to the journalist’s camera? And Ms. Srblijanovic’s children play quite sophisticated political games, which pre-teen children would know little about (the violence of war, yes; but not the reasons behind it); perhaps the actors should start each sketch as “children” and become adults (i.e. the actors’ own ages) and then revert back to “children” again – it would at least lend some variety to all the shouting.
Jeff Cowie has designed an impressive set of rubble, though his placing it in the context of the Market’s wood paneling and chandeliers turns FAMILY STORIES into a court masque for the upper-uppers and not a piece of agit-prop for The People. The Market’s amazing sound system is as good as ever; Jonah Rapino’s explosions will blast you awake should you ever doze off.