Meditation on hope

In a few weeks, Undermain Theatre will fly to Macedonia to perform Sarajevo, a play written by Macedonian native Goran Stefanovsky, at the three-week summer festival there. Ten theaters will perform at the festival, and all of them except the Undermain are Eastern European troupes.

The Undermain members have taken on the role of emissary very seriously. But the ensemble also knows too well it is walking a fine line with this piece. The group has dealt with "profound fears," according to artistic director Raphael Parry, of coming across like flaky, arrogant American artists who, having produced a play about a besieged, war-torn area they couldn't imagine in their wildest dreams, perform it glibly for people close to it.

For while Macedonia is not Sarajevo, it is uncomfortably close--geographically and historically. Macedonia lives with the same delicate balance of power among ethnic groups that exists throughout the Balkans. Like Bosnia, it is a multinational state split between Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Even though American troops are stationed there as peacekeepers, Macedonia's political situation is extremely volatile. All or part of the country is coveted by its neighbors, who have cross-border ethnic ties. There is fear--some say unfounded--that Macedonia could be the next hotbed of ethnic conflict, home as it is to Jews, Turks, Bulgars, Vlachs, and Gypsies as well as Muslim Albanians and Slavic Macedonians.

Worst case scenario: Parry and co-artistic director Katherine Owens come across like the troubled, wealthy aesthete who waxes patronizingly on a small civil conflict in Wallace Shawn's The Fever. (Parry has been performing that work in local homes of the urbane.) Or the entire ensemble resembles the earnest but spacey Jules Feiffer cartoon dancer proclaiming, "This is my dance to El Salvador."

However, Parry and Owens thought long and hard on the subject of touring Macedonia. "We're really slow people," Parry said. "It's evident in our style. We were concerned and afraid, but finally we decided this is where we have to go."

And anyone who knows the group knows it's the only Dallas theater company that could pull this kind of thing off. The group is irreverent but serious, tight-knit, and full of individualists who question the nature of things. Each of them is contributing $2,000 of his or her own money to go to the festival, which says something about the company's intentions.

Although Undermain got a $4,000 grant from the U.S. Fund for International Festivals (which is coordinated by the NEA), there is no budget per se. "The actors themselves are pretty much funding it after the airfare," Parry said. "As far as the set goes, we were told just to get as many old suit- cases collected as we could. Oh, and one parachute."

It all started when director Naum Panovsky, a visiting professor at UT Dallas, approached the Undermain two years ago. Parry said he balked at the idea of Panovsky directing the troupe in Sarajevo. "Then we thought it's goofy how provincial things have gotten here."

Here meaning Dallas, of course. They got back to Panovsky and said "yes." Why not take a risk and do something completely outside of their experience?

The trip reflects the first movement toward a change in the Undermain's reason for being. In the next millennium, Undermain will be a theater headquartered out of Dallas. But it will concentrate on bringing its developed work elsewhere. "More and more we'd like to do this kind of thing," Parry said. "In the next 10 years we'd like to develop work, premiere it here, and perform it abroad." The group would like to represent new American writers no one is producing abroad--like Erik Ehn, Mac Wellman, Jeff Jones, and others.

Undermain isn't abandoning Dallas. Sarajevo will be premiered here at the end of July, and may have a longer run when the group comes back from Macedonia. "I imagine the play will be a different animal when we return," Parry said.

But these days, the eight people who are traveling spend as much time figuring out how to fly around the no-fly zone as they do rehearsing.

"It's scary and confusing making the arrangements," Parry said over scones and coffee at a Dallas eatery. "People don't ask us about the play. They ask us how we're going to get out of the country if there is a problem. We all have weird, mixed emotions about the trip."

Escape routes aside, Parry describes the play as "a meditation and a prayer of hope" for the people of Sarajevo. The work, which eschews identifying its characters as Muslim or Christian (the actors are not allowed to wear colors associated with either), will be performed as a vigil, under candlelight. Written and performed in English, it is the playwright's hope that the play will affect those intimidated by or inured to the conflict, Parry said.

"Sarajevo de-emphasizes the political context and focuses on the individual," he said. "The point is to get beyond the ideology and understand that these are people living their lives under siege."

For more information on Sarajevo, call the Undermain at 747-1424.

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Nora Fitzgerald