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W.S. Jenks & Son
Remaining Performances (tickets available here): Sunday, July 19 at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, July 23 at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 25 at 2:30 p.m.
They say: War rages on. Neda and Laurent need help. John, a United Nations officer, collects their stories. He needs to act fast to save them. How much are they willing to share? How far will John go to save them?
Cassie’s take: The show opens with a radio broadcast describing atrocities being committed in an unnamed, war-torn country. While the radio handles the exposition (and takes a dig at trifling Capitol Hill squabbles), we’re introduced to John (Dr. Richard Tanenbaum), a deflated U.N. caseworker stationed in the country. John is essentially a glorified stenographer, peppering traumatized victims of war crimes with the same list of sterile questions.
John is faced with two war victims begging to be relocated. One, a man named Laurent (Samuel Dumarque Wright), has a baritone, charismatic laugh and a languid, fluid quality as he needles John about his book collection. Laurent slides into John’s office multiple times before revealing his heart-wrenching story in a climactic, Frost/Nixon showdown. The other is Neda (Karen Elle), a clearly traumatized but dignified woman who, in an unnervingly detached manner, presents the graphic details of all of the sexual violence committed against her.
The set has the feel of an underground bunker, with cement walls pasted with U.N. paraphernalia and a low ceiling. It lends a claustrophobic feel to this tightly paced and deeply uncomfortable drama written by Luigi Laraia, an advisor to the World Bank Board of Directors. The show has all sorts of subtle, lovely touches, from a heartbeat soundtrack thumping faster and louder as John is confronted with more victims to Laraia paralleling Neda and Laurent’s stories with each other. The play’s willingness to criticize the U.N., and, by proxy, the playgoer, complicates the idea that bearing witness is an effective tool to combat gender violence at all.
Neda Wants to Die is brutal and compelling. At one point, Elle storms into the audience, eyes wild, saying, “You want to see your war, look at my body.” I put down my pen, ashamed to be scrawling notes in my pad (just like John) instead of looking at her. Elle’s powerful performance lends depth to a character that, despite a few personalized details, is essentially an avatar, a fill-in-the-blank victim of war.
At one point, John drops to his knees as recordings of victims and perpetrators crescendo around him, drowning out Neda and Laurent’s own demands and accusations that the U.N. can do nothing for them. Neda and Laurent are meant to represent all victims of war, which, unfortunately, waters down their stories. This is ultimately a play about John losing his religion — the U.N. human rights jargon becomes hollow for the formally idealistic John. When he finally looks up from his note-taking to look at these two desperate people, he tells them how he sorry he is. Neda wants to die and John is sorry.
Unsurprisingly, considering the play was commissioned by the World Bank as part of a multi-media exhibition on gendered violence with source material culled from U.N. reports and victim testimony, the play tends to slide into “very special episode” territory. All of the characters whip out clunky statistics and facts about gender violence. Yet when the lights came up, I was shaken and disoriented. Though Laraia wants to represent all victims of war, the play is at its most powerful when the characters focus on their stories as individuals. One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.
See it if: You only read the executive summary of U.N. reports. But keep in mind that some of the details are stomach-churning.
Skip it if: You felt good about yourself after sharing that “Kony 2012” video on Facebook.
Photo courtesy of Luigi Laraia