It won’t come as a surprise to learn that women and children are the ones who most regrettably suffer the consequences of wars that men make. That they are the most vulnerable victims of outrage and sexual brutality seems to be endemic. But if we do not meaningfully act in response to this horrifying aspect of life during war, civil or otherwise, especially in such places as the Democratic Republic of Congo, it won’t be because playwright Lynn Nottage hasn’t stirred our hearts and minds. She has written a gripping and stunning play that brings the plight of “ruined” women into close range.
Despite its discernable polemic and agitprop underpinnings, the drama pulsates with an implicit reality and with characters that resonate with impassioned and heart-breaking honesty. Nottage, who scored big with award-winning play “Intimate Apparel,” exceeds our expectations with this significant play that has the qualities that should define it for Pulitzer Prize consideration. The action takes place in a seedy bar and brothel in a small mining town in the Ituri rainforest. Serving as an oasis for either the rebels or government militia depending on who is in control of the moment, it is also a refuge for young women who have been abandoned, disgraced, or dislocated.
The proprietress, Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona), is a tough, resourceful woman who has fearlessly maintained political and social neutrality that she trusts will not jeopardize her relationship with the visiting miners and soldiers. Although Nottage’s inspiration for Mama Nadi comes from Brecht’s opportunistic, entrepreneurial Mother Courage, she invests in Mama Nadi a much more naturalistic and humanistic quality. Mama has a touching, if no nonsense, regard for the women in her care and employ. These are women, mostly victims of rape, who have been shunned by their families and exiled from their villages. In a way, Mama Nadi is a savior/protector who holds all men in disdain. But she also feels she owns the women after purchasing them from Christian (Russell Gebert Jones), a traveling salesman.
Christian convinces Mama Nadi to give a safe haven and provide work to his beautiful and educated niece, Sophie (Condola Rashad), who has been so brutalized that she can not be used for sex. She is reluctantly offered office work and persuaded to sing for the patrons. Sophie’s relationship with Mama Nadi is as difficult as it is with the jealous Josephine (Cherise Boothe), who boldly and provocatively demonstrates her eagerness to please. Sophie is more compassionately inclined toward Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), who had suffered in the hands of soldiers who tied her to a tree and used her for sex for five months.
In keeping with the more embracing tradition of drama, the political aspects are mainly kept beyond the bar’s wooden walls and the stripped forest beyond (evocatively designed by Derek McLane and atmospherically lighted by Peter Kaczorowski). Original music by Dominic Kanza plays an integral part in the drama, as do emotional upheavals, and scenes of violence. Even though the relationship between Christian, who remains a poet and lover at heart and Mama Nadi, whose callousness proves penetrable, appears as a post traumatic resolve, it is most welcome after a series of harrowing dramatic encounters.
Because the acting by the cast of 12 is uniformly excellent, I will address as exceptional the towering vibrancy of Ekulona’s Mama Nadi and Jones’ marvelously animated Christian. The play, under Kate Whoriskey’s controlled direction, is a result of Nottage’s visit to Uganda in 2004 where she interviewed brutalized Congolese women. It is out of these horrific stories that Nottage has forged an extraordinary drama of survival, pain, and dramatic scope. It is undoubtedly one of the best plays of the year and is not only rewarded by the splendid production, it has been given by the Manhattan Theater Club, but also deserving of an extended life way beyond it limited run. HHHH
“Ruined,” through Sunday, April 12, MTC at New York City Center — Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street. $75. 212-581-1212.
‘Are you ready to be astonished,” asks Louis de Rougemont, the English 19th century teller of tall tales, as portrayed by the talented, versatile, and limber Michael Countryman. A clever and diverting family “entertainment” subtitled “The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (as told by himself),” this sublimely staged and performed narrative has more to offer than many a spectacle-filled theatrical. A cousin in spirit to Baron Munchausen, the 18th century baron famed for relating his incredible adventures, astounding feats and escapades (as told by others, and in Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film), Louis de Rougemont almost rivals his predecessor’s ability to amaze and confound. Is all or just a bit fraudulent? Is Louis nuts, or just a bit of a dreamer?
Whereas Gilliam used the budget-be-damned resources of Hollywood to the fullest to conjure up the baron’s most fantastical series of adventures, Countryman works on a virtually bare stage with only the support of two gifted actors — Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Jeremy Bobb — who portray a host of characters, provide a bounty of special effects and produce whatever sounds are required. The cast of three, under Lisa Peterson’s direction, work hard and effectively to make this marvelously modest show a 90-minute delight.
Inspired by Sarah Burton’s “The Imposters,” playwright Donald Margulies (“Sight Unseen,” “Dinner With Friends”) has written a vehicle that honors both the art of storytelling and the ability of actors to create worlds that don’t require more than an audience’s willingness to see them. Countryman is almost immediately disarming as the Victorian who leaves his mother and home at the age of sixteen for life-time of adventure. A sickly but imaginative child, Louis braves the unknown in order to live an extraordinary life. That we are willing to believe in his action-filled, imaginatively embroidered adventures is partly due to the seriously invoked personality created by Countryman.
At first, there is only a ghost light plopped in the middle of an almost empty stage (designed in the less-is-more style by Neil Patel). But if you look carefully to the sides, you can see all kinds of props and things that will go clang and bang and that will soon be in the hands of Grays and Bobb. These two also have the daunting task of multiple role-playing, including pirates and Aborigines, in various quickly changed get-ups and using differing accents. Bobb’s most endearing impersonation is as Bruno, a frisky and devoted dog that becomes Louis’ best friend.
As for Louis, he has no lack of picaresque adventures fending off flying wombats; fighting a giant octopus while pearling in the Coral Sea; being marooned for years like Robinson Crusoe; becoming the “warrior” husband of an Aborigine’s chief’s daughter; and begetting two children Blanche and Gladys. It won’t spoil a thing to tell you that Louis finds his way back to London and a reunion with his mother. Considering that Louis gets good Queen Victoria to believe his stories and by insisting to us that “every word is true,” should make it easier for you to swallow them. I have to admit that after seeing Louis ride on the back of a giant sea turtle, I was willing to believe anything. HHH
“Shipwrecked! An Entertainment,” through Saturday, March 7, Primary Stages at 59E59, 59 East 59th Street. $60; $20 for patrons 35 and under. 212-279-4200.