Пресса / «Connected by Blood»

John Freedman, «CONTEXT», №6, 06.04.2007

Lebanese-born writer and director Wajdi Mouawad stages «Scorched» his harrowing tale of a family torn apart by civil war, at the Et Cetera Theater.

In the final moments of Wajdi Mouawad's «Scorched» at the Et Cetera Theater, a family that has suffered 50 years of pain, humiliation and torture huddles against a drenching rain beneath a plastic sheet. One person stands apart, dumbstruck, alienated and soaked. But even he eventually is drawn to the people fending off the elements. And they do not decline him shelter.

This is only one of numerous moments in this production that slam home the play's themes of cruelty and the resilience of the human spirit. It is a moment that, in case you have forgotten, reminds you that Mouawad not only wrote a devastating play, he created a powerful piece of theatrical poetry. «Scorched» is yet another triumph for the Et Cetera this season. More than any theater in town, the Et Cetera has .taken risks, sought out the unusual and pushed the envelope by taking on a variety of extremely different plays. When this season winds down, the theater will find itself included in numerous top — 10 lists, with multiple entries. «Scorched» surely will be among them.

Mouawad is a Lebanese-born, Paris-raised resident of Quebec. A novelist, director and playwright, he has, at the age of 38, taken his place as one of the most important and prolific theater artists in Canada. Much of his work draws its inspiration — one might better say its rage, tolerance and wisdom — from the events that have torn apart the country of his birth over the last four decades. «Scorched» is no exception. It is an extraordinary piece about violence, dignity, national guilt, national pride and human determination. It forms a treacherous common ground where destiny crashes up against the will of individuals to rise above merciless fate. As director of his own work at the Et Cetera, Mouawad exhibits a bold willingness to let his play's obscurity and complexity speak for themselves. He trusts the audience to lock into the emotional pull of the story as it spins forward almost, but not quite, out of control.

The play begins in the middle, drifts backward, then leaps ahead. In fact, Mouawad obliterates time in this tale about a teenage girl forced by her family to give up her child and part with the boy she loves. This event — the separation of mother, child and father — lays the ground for a series of tragedies that will descend on all involved with the certainty of sunrise and sunset. When she died, the old woman Nawal left behind a curious will that baffles and infuriates her two children, the twins Janine and Simon. Through Nawal's friend and estate executor, the grown children are given letters they must deliver to strangers. Only once these letters reach their addressees can the estate be settled. And only then will Nawal's final will allow them to mark her grave; she insists they bury her without a coffin in an unmarked grave until such time as her demands are met.

Simon (Amadu Mamadakov), a boxer with a temper, lashes out at the executor (Sergei Tongur) with a cascade of incriminations. This is the final insult from his mother, he shouts, from a woman who never spoke and never told them anything. He refuses to have anything to do with it. «We'll bury her in a coffin and be done with her», he rages. Janine (Natalya Zhitkova) is the opposite of her brother. Cold, silent and inscrutable, she says nothing and leaves, barely uttering a word. But she, too, has no intention of obeying her mother's wishes. Janine is a theoretical mathematician, and for her the essence of life is carried in the equation of 1 + 1 = 2. The obscure puzzle left by her mother is of little interest to her.

The executor, however, is not to be deterred. A kind, ungainly man, he not only feels the responsibility of his official position, but Nawal was his friend. He will not rest until her children respect her final wishes. His often annoying reminders and unwavering commitment to his job ultimately induce the children to embark on the journey their mother planned for them. Nothing in «Scorched» unfolds with the linear simplicity I have given it here. We are constantly making leaps in time and space. Two or even three different times and places share the stage at once. To achieve this, Nawal is performed by three different actresses: Natalya Nozdrina as Nawal at 15, Marina Churakova as Nawal at the age of 40 and Tatyana Vladimirova as the matriarch at 60. They are joined by Nawal's best friend Sawda (Maria Skosyreva), by Nawal's mother (Churakova), grandmother (Vladimirova) and a host of men who played incidental, but key, roles in Nawal's life (most played by Sergei Plotnikov). The sentimental youth who fathered Nawal's first child is played by the same actor, Valery Pankov, who plays the chillingly intelligent and deadly accurate sniper Nihad.

«Scorched» is no straightforward detective story, but it would be criminal of me to reveal the interconnections of the characters any more specifically. Janine is the first to be drawn into the search for her mother's - and, thus, her own — heritage. When Simon joins her, the discoveries become almost more than they can bear. You might say Nawal was a child of her era. Her family did not want her to be independent or educated, although her grandmother made her promise to learn to read and write. By gaining those skills, however, Nawal became an outcast, a dangerous element in a society that frowned on change. She struggled to maintain her humanity in a time of war and hatred. She killed a warlord in an act of calculated vengeance and landed in a brutal prison where torture and rape were the daily fare. This caused a twist in her biography she could not have imagined in her worst nightmares.

As Janine and Simon slowly unravel the thread of their mother's biography, they learn that they, too, are players in a convoluted drama that is every bit the equal of a Greek tragedy in depth and force of truth. The mythical power of the story is heightened by the fact that it takes place in an unnamed country. This benighted land is the land of Everyman — and woman. Mouawad has his actors speak in a highly emotional manner bordering on a rhythmic shout. If this occasionally irritates early on, it undeniably sets the performance on a razor-sharp edge. And when the breath of normal human speech appears later, it is a revelation.

The set by Isabelle Lariviere is an open tile floor backed by a screen of small, dirty windowpanes. The neat geometry of the screen and its obstructed transparency reflect but do not illustrate the play's symbiotic mix of order and chaos. Behind the screen sit the partially visible musicians of the SounDrama Studio, which composed the expressive incidental music. Mouawad created some forceful monologues, giving each key figure an opportunity to have his or her say. And the cast at the Et Cetera is up to handling them. Pankov is brilliant as the hyperactive sniper. Vladimirova balances the weight of the world in the penultimate scene of Nawal speaking to her family through the words of her will. Skosyreva turns in a fiery indictment of human brutality when telling the story of a mother forced by a soldier to choose which of her sons would live or die. «Scorched» does what it promises to. It burns its way to the core of the modern experience and lets us feel the heat as it does.

«Scorched» (Pozhary) plays Fri, Sat. and April 24 at 7 p.m. at the Et Cetera Theater, located at 2 Frolov Pereulok. Metro Turgenevskaya. Tel. 625–2161, 781–7811. www.et-cetera.ru. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.