Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Ruined": ☼ ☼

Lynn Nottage is hot now. We loved her "Intimate Apparel" a few years ago, and since her new show "Ruined" has won a Pulitzer for Drama and many other New York theater awards, we looked forward with excitement to this new production at Berkeley Rep.

Our subject is rape in the Congo. In the real world there are many women whose lives have been destroyed by bands of militia roaming the African countryside. In Nottage's story, several of these women end up in Mama Nadi's bar/whorehouse. Mama Nadi herself (Tonye Patano) is a large, effusive women who attempts to peddle whiskey and sex to all comers -- which is to say miners and soldiers from all sides of every struggle. Guns must be emptied and ammo clips stored behind the bar before you're allowed to sample any of the wares in Mama's, which tells us Mama is the only glue holding this conflicted part of the world together. (Think Rick in Casablanca.)

The story line belongs to the girls, Salima (Pascale Armand), Sophie (Carla Duren) and Josephine (Zainab Jah).

They are the ones who have suffered the most. Salima's history is particularly gruesome -- kidnapped and shackled to a tree by the ankle, she was raped repeatedly for five months by soldiers in the jungle. "I was soup before dinner, everyone take a taste," she says. Then, when she finally escaped, she was rejected by her husband and family because now she was damaged goods. In other words: ruined.

Everyone is trapped. Our hearts are broken for these women -- in real life, anyway. But the play is leaden. The playwright pontificates, the direction is heavy-handed and the set is filled with so many African objects all the actors barely have room to move, let alone stomp their feet. The language spoken is an African/English patois, mixed with French we are guessing. It is very difficult to decipher, let alone comprehend, more than a percentage of what any character says.

Even the Congolese music falls short, and this is difficult to do to such a catchy and danceable style. Although the two-person band has a superior musical pedigree (guitarist Adesoji Odukogbe played for five years with superstar Fela), their tunes never go anywhere. The guitarist noodles, the percussionist doodles and Carla Duren sings in a reedy voice that we suppose is meant to convey her discomfort and unhappiness. It doesn't help that the songs, like the dialog, are in a dialect we cannot follow.

Only at the very end, when the happy-in-quotes ending we knew was coming finally arrives, and Duren and Armand sing a lovely duet together, do we see what a difference taking the wraps off this irrepressible music might have made for Nottage's story, if not for our comprehension, then at least to convey the sense of inner beauty the playwright feels for this forgotten center of Africa. As it is, "Ruined" is mostly about tragedy and it is unremitting.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Ruined" Two Stars. The baddies are truly bad (Adrian Roberts as Commander Osembenga makes you want to duck under your seat so he can't find you) and that's always good. Tonye Patano can really sing (but you only get to hear her in one little chorus). Oberon K.A. Adjepong as Christian guzzles an entire Fanta as the show starts (we hope he doesn't have to do matinees too). He gets another Fanta in Act Two, but only takes a few sips.

Sadly, the show starts and ends in the same place. Mama Nadi's surprise is telegraphed a million miles away, and all we have to cheer for is the hope that these few women, out of the tens of thousands of others in the real word, can find a Mama to help them. They'll still be selling sex to survive, but at least they'll have enough to eat. Don't look for answers here. Neither the world nor playwright Nottage have any for you.

Berkeley Repertory Company
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through April 10
$34-$73 (half price to anyone under 30)


Sarah Bierman said...

I thought Ruined was an amazing play, the dialogue wasn't hard to understand, it flowed and was intensely poetic. Something most playwrights can't do simultaneously. Yes they spoke in a different language sometimes but that adds to the flavor of the play. Also Salima's story associated with the word ruined completely undermines the whole play. Ruined is when a person sticks a bayonet in a women destroying her insides forever. The characters talk about this at the beginning of the play, if you were paying any attention. FYI stick to reviewing Broadway re-runs they usually speak in an American accent.

Anonymous said...

nazi you are dead

DAK said...

Ms. Bierman, I'm not sure exactly what you're saying -- I think we agree. But thanks for writing. The comments on anyone's blog usually run more like the next one which I have decided to keep up here just so you can see how thankful I am you wrote a thoughtful comment. - dak