Why the hell is there a Mark Twain impersonator stumbling around onstage during a play about the Rwandan genocide? This is not a minor quibble. I wish it were. It’s a big problem emblematic of a play that is often tonally disconnected from its horrific subject matter, with a plot buried under a stack of metanarratives.
Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the United Nations commander who appears as a main character in Unexplored Interior, suffers from PTSD and continually hallucinates the ghost of Mark Twain. This seems odd, because Dallaire is a Francophone Canadian born in the Netherlands, and unlikely to be a huge Twain fan. Also, this seems odd because this is a play about genocide.
Mediocre dramas about terrible atrocities are pretty common on Washington stages, because D.C. is full of theatergoers with a conscience and theaters that sometimes prioritize message over medium. But if there was a serious play to root for this season, it was Unexplored Interior, the first production by Washington’s newest troupe. The Mosaic Theater Company is supposed to be the Phoenix rising from the ashes of last year’s dramatic spat that pitted Ari Roth, former artistic director of Theater J, against the leadership of the Jewish Community Center, the theater’s parent organization.
In less than a year, Roth has gotten a new theater company off the ground—complete with a 23-member board and a permanent home at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Two venerable D.C. directors, Jennifer L. Nelson and Serge Seiden, joined Roth on staff, and a host of D.C. actors auditioned for the company’s eight-show inaugural season.
But these talented votes of confidence mean nothing if Roth continues to back scripts like Unexplored Interior, a world-premiere play by the television character actor Jay O. Sanders. The play covers the same ground as the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. Although Dallaire wasn’t named in the movie, the Nick Nolte character attempting to lead peacekeepers against a Hutu uprising is loosely modeled on the general. Onstage at Mosaic, Dallaire is portrayed by Jeff Allin, who also plays Alan, an American documentary maker who travels to Africa in 1993, the year before the killings, and hires an aspiring Rwandan director named Raymond (Desmond Bing) to help him film gorillas. And that’s where things get very narratively murky.
The action is divided between flashbacks to Raymond’s 1980s youth, a central narrative of 1993 and the 1994 genocide, and flash-forward sequences set in 2003-04, when Raymond and Alan’s widow Kate (Erika Rose) travel to Rwanda together and begin contemplating making a movie about the genocide. Alan wrote the screenplay before he died of a mysterious heart ailment. And in their imaginary movie, Dallaire keeps hallucinating a Pudd’nhead Wilson–quoting Mark Twain (John Lescault), always lurking about in a Hal Holbrook–appropriate linen suit.
In a secondary narrative in the imaginary film, Raymond’s ex-girlfriend (Shannon Dorsey), who is Tutsi, becomes the mistress of a Hutu government official. Both the lovers lives are then put in peril. As cast members enact the film sequences, Bing circles around them, hand raised and fingers waving like a conductor beating time. Rose’s character, meanwhile, is used as a thankless expository device, frequently interjecting questions like, “And then what happened next? Did all the Tutsis hiding in the church get killed?”
The best acting in the show (which follows yet another narrative, about Raymond’s search to find out what happened to his beloved grandfather) comes courtesy of JaBen A. Early and Baakari Wilder. Their wild-eyed depictions of Hutu militiamen are truly frightening, and for better or worse, are the most convincing characters in the play.
If Sanders had pared Unexplored Interior down to 90 minutes focusing on the government official, the mistress, and the ex-boyfriend, Mosaic might have had a pretty decent melodrama about Rwanda on its stage.
It appears no one at Mosaic made that suggestion. Let us hope that Unexplored Interior serves as a warning, and that Mosaic never again stages such a bloody mess.
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