Out of ashes

Undermain's challenging Sarajevo captures the soul of a lost city

Imagine for a moment that the good citizens of Austin have Dallas surrounded and are lobbing mortar shells into the streets, gang-raping women, and "cleansing" the Metroplex of its men.

Now imagine that you are a playwright who wishes to comment on these events, but in order to reach the appropriate audience, you must write your play in Macedonian.

That, roughly, is Macedonian writer Goran Stefanovski's position relative to his play Sarajevo, which Dallas' Undermain Theatre will present at the Ohrid Summer Festival this month in Macedonia. Sarajevo played briefly at the Undermain in July and will return to the theater in mid-September for a one-month run after performances in the Macedonian cities of Ohrid, Skopje, and Bitola.

Stefanovski is a prominent Macedonian playwright and a lecturer in English literature at the Faculty of Philology in Skopje. Sarajevo is his first play written in English, and it is an ambitious undertaking. In a scant two hours of running time, Stefanovski seeks to preserve in the amber of his words the history, architecture, music, languages, myriad religions, and even the cuisine of the lost city of Sarajevo.

The playwright envisions the city through the eyes of a dying girl named Sara who dreams in the moments before death of retrieving Sarajevo's soul. In a hallucinogenic and free-associative journey, Sara meets typical Sarajevans and learns their stories; encounters hapless, dumb, and dumber U.N. "peacekeepers"; is rebuffed by champagne-swilling European diplomats; eavesdrops on revelers at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics; and meets historical figures such as Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand, and Yugoslavian strongman Josip Tito, whose parting admonition that Yugoslavs protect their unity as they would their eyes has been so grievously ignored. The play is both an elegy for a city and a call for understanding and assistance.

The Undermain, Dallas' leading experimental theater, would appear to be the perfect conduit for this play, which is directed by native Macedonian Naum Panovski and features noted Macedonian actor Georgi Jolevski. Given the Undermain's subterranean space, which lends itself to brooding, mysterious, or unsettling themes, the all-out commitment of its performers, and the play's fresh-as-a-wound subject matter, one hopes for a revelatory night of theater.

It doesn't quite amount to that. One barrier to the appreciation of this play is that the rape of Sarajevo-Bosnia may be too current and too poignant as yet for fictionalization. Consider, by analogy, the reaction of an audience watching a dramatization of the Oklahoma City bombing while the dust from the explosion still swirls in the air. A play about the bombing, no matter how earnest, would seem irrelevant when far more compelling scenes capturing the rarity of the event can be seen at the flick of a TV dial. If such images don't move us, what mere play will?

Perhaps a little distancing is needed in this age of instant communication before one is comfortable viewing an artist's interpretation of a tragedy. Drama, after all, is not reporting. Like poetry, it's more a writer's reflection on experience as considered over time. Generally it is after the fact, after mourning and assimilation, that we come to artists to show us the meaning, if any, of what has occurred.

Moreover, the play is episodic by design so that no particular character is on stage long enough to gain our empathy.

The Undermain ensemble is as strong as ever, but paradoxically its usual strengths are almost liabilities here. The actors are so committed to this project, so convinced of its importance, that they have difficulty remaining natural, and nearly stray into pretentiousness. This is particularly evident at the play's conclusion, where members of the audience are asked to hold mourning candles, thereby expressing an empathy for Sarajevo which the play may or may not have evoked in them. In addition, the actors do not appear for a curtain call, implying that the play transcends the mere conventions of theater when in fact it does not.

Nevertheless, when Sarajevo resumes its run in Dallas, it's a pretty safe bet that it will be the most interesting, challenging, and thought-provoking theater experience in town.

If Sarajevo is that rarity, a piece of Dallas theater that resonates internationally, The Murders in the Rue Morgue is insignificant even by the standards of the 5400 block of Mockingbird Lane, where the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, which is staging the play, is housed in a strip mall.

It's funny, though, and funny beats significant almost every time whether we like to admit it or not.

Murders is one of those audience-participation, pelt-the-villain-with-popcorn jobs, based loosely on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, with elements of H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau grafted on as a plot enhancer. It, too, has an international setting (Paris) with a largely bilingual cast (at any rate, the actors have mastered the two expressions most commonly used by the rank-and-file French--"sacre bleu" and "Oo-la-la!").

The best thing about this kind of hoot-fest is that it carries on the time-honored tradition of mutual audience-cast harassment that extends from at least the Middle Ages. "Damn it, man!" the hero will expostulate, "Can't you see that Dr. Moreau has created a miserable, pathetic, subhuman--like that little girl in the front row!" At which point little girl in f.r. lets fly with a basket of popcorn and the timeless retort, "It takes one to know one!"

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