City Paper is not for tourists
The Monument builds a kind of memorial, a defiant remembrance shakily squaring its shoulders at the receding specter of war, and it’s kind of sentimental now and again as its two brutalized characters work their way toward the possibility of learning and healing. But be warned: It’s by no means an evening of unalloyed uplift. Playwright Colleen Wagner wants you to understand that you, as easily as anyone, could be victimizer or scapegoat, that you’d be as tempted as the next survivor given the chance to get your hands on a war criminal, and that the quality of mercy, pace Portia, can in fact occasionally be strained. It’s rough stuff, if very stylishly staged by John Vreeke at Theater Alliance—the kind of production that’ll have you admiring the play of light and shadow even as one character beats another senseless.
What it’s not is especially moving. Or it wasn’t for me, anyway—I sat there, conscious only of how conscious the playwright wanted me to be of the sadnesses on display, of each human’s frailty, each individual’s weakness in the grip of anger and fear. I kept thinking I ought to be devastated, but I generally dislike being bossed around.
Jennifer Mendenhall, one of the Washington area’s most consistently intriguing actresses, plays Mejra, a mystery woman who intervenes just as the state is about to execute a soldier in some nation that might be Serbia—no allegiances are spelled out in Wagner’s text, no enemies identified, which is doubtless the point. The young man strapped to the gurney could have fought for any side, for all we know; in fact, for several long minutes, you might think Stetko simply a condemned serial killer, so noncommittal is Wagner’s language and so discursive is the long, raw monologue she gives him at the opening of the show.
Or perhaps the Hannibal Lecter vibe is a matter of performance choice: “The one I liked best was 17…with watery eyes, like a doe’s,” Stetko says in those first moments, and maybe if there were more of the doe and less of the diabolical in Alexander Strain’s eyes, Wagner’s emotional manipulations might pay off more conclusively as we learn more about the character and how he came to rape and murder 23 young women while his fellow soldiers cheered him on. But Vreeke has encouraged Strain to come at those opening lines not enigmatically or defiantly or regretfully or even neutrally, but lasciviously, with a horrid relish in his voice and a voluptuary’s awareness of the restraints that bind him to that gurney. He arches his body against them, splayed fingers stroking the steel frame of the cart, and with no one on the stage but this fully clothed person speaking of sex and death, the room suddenly reeks of the obscene. It is staggeringly effective—and it’s utterly impossible, after this moment, to see this young man as the victim, the scapegoat, the tragically damaged 19-year-old goods Wagner’s script wants him to be.
And still Mejra arrives, and when Stetko asks whether she’s the executioner, she replies that she’s his savior—but yes and no. She has indeed come to spare his life, if he swears to obey her without question until the end of his days, and the punishments she will impose (and have him impose on himself) are both epic and banal—cruel labor, a ferocious and arbitrary maiming, an injury self-inflicted because the alternative is a shallow grave. Wagner’s unflinchingly harsh depictions of the revenge Mejra takes on Stetko are meant to make us wonder about what we mean when we talk of justice and of closure and of righteous anger, and there are in fact a couple of beautifully framed moments: “You should look at every woman as if she were your daughter,” Mejra tells Stetko, just before Wagner makes explicit what the audience has long sensed about why she’s taken such a personal interest in punishing a war criminal, and one critical litany of fear and failure and horror later, he flings the words back in her teeth: “Why don’t you look at every man as if he were your son?”
But there are moments, too, that verge on the absurd. Mejra spares the life of a snared rabbit, thinking perhaps to torment the starving Stetko by forcing him to kill an injured, vulnerable creature; he tends to it instead, even feeds it things he might have eaten himself, and when one of those things turns out to be something precious Mejra has planted, he tries feebly to protect the widdle bunny wabbit. No, really, it’s that bluntly a teaching moment: “Do you think the first lie ever told was to protect another?” Mejra asks, pressing the point, but you miss the answer amid the sound of the audience’s stifled groans.
Such infelicities (and they’re only occasional, really) don’t keep Vreeke and his team from coming at the play with all the resources head and heart can muster. Nick Vaughan frames the action on a bleak expressionist wasteland, a place where the shadowed peace echoes with the warlike clang of boots on steel grids and life claws along daily in the dirt—dirt that will fly when the time comes for Mejra’s ultimate lesson and when Stetko finds himself excavating memories along with more corporeal evidence of his past. Dan Covey, in darks and lights, echoes the play’s contention that black and white is nonsense, suggesting that sunlight smiles on terrible things and that sometimes the night brings comfort.
Strain, who’s an intelligent actor (notwithstanding that perplexing first scene) and a versatile one, ultimately does uncover some humanity in Stetko’s pitiful, fearful shrug of a life; late in the play (too late, perhaps) it becomes almost possible to imagine his redemption and to mourn the pain of what requires redeeming. And Mendenhall’s performance begins as a thing of tightly controlled disgust and grief and rage, escalating until the only possible outlet is a noiseless howl—noiseless at first, anyway, though it becomes a keen all the more tormented for its relative feebleness. This is an actress who says as much with pauses and with flickers of expression as the playwright says with words, and to anyone not resisting the latter’s insistent prodding, the former’s eloquence might well be crushing.
The Monument, alas, turns out to be merely heavy, and heavy going, as Wagner steers her twosome inevitably toward the catharsis Mejra has been denying herself. Not for nothing does the title suggest a memorial: Moments of truth (and reconciliation?) and even of symbolic resurrection are duly engineered, and Wagner signals at the conclusion that forgiveness and mercy may after all be water enough to wash this grim world clean.
But her signals too often read like semaphore, so somehow the play’s humanity goes missing, and you leave begrimed with ashes and graveyard earth—she’s rubbed your nose in it.CP