Arts & Events

Theater Review: Afterthoughts, in re: Ruined, at the Berkeley Rep

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday April 05, 2011 - 02:58:00 PM

Ruined, Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prizewinner--now in its last week at Berkeley Rep--presents a conundrum to theater-goers, one often enough found in regional rep productions: a thoroughly professional stage production of a newer play, offset by a kind of aimlessness of dramatic intent dogging a well-meaning script that seems to aim at all the academic verities of the craft. 

In other words, Ruined advertises itself as a piece that gives dramatic perspective on the ongoing crisis in the Congo--and Liesl Tommy's staging of it necessarily trips over the displacements encountered in trying to flesh out its disparities. 

"My play is not about victims, but survivors," said Nottage. A noble credo, but one that's unsure of its own sense of the characters, or theirs of each other. 

A pedestrian "realistic" melodrama about gripping events and how they're lived through, the most striking images, the tableaux of the Congo, in Ruined run the gamut from a dreamlike surrealism (when Sophie, the "ruined" young woman who's just been grudgingly accepted into the brothel, finds herself surrounded by crouched, menacing soldiers in darkness--and then, in a flash of light, is singing Afro-pop to them, customers dancing wildly), to dischordant echoes of sentimentality (Mama Nadi as the tough madam maybe harboring a heart of gold), a performative epic style (Nadi as a momentary kind of Mother Courage), back to sugar coating again (the sentimentalized happy ending after the crisis--the disaster--of the brothel raided by vengeful soldiers--and Nadi's tearful acceptance of a kind of forgiveness) emphasize the flimsiness of the play's own storytelling as it droops under the stylistic potpourri it's adorned with. 

In his March 9th review of Ruined in the Plant, John McMullen brought up many points I concur with; one I interpret a little differently: in the fine performances by the predominantly African actors, their accented elongating of the dialogue didn't slow down the play in a pejorative sense so much as make its language reveal a lack of density, an inability to survive a reality check of "African time," the social rhythm of communication--even realization--in the very scene Ruined purports to portray, to get under the skin of ... 

For a play aimed at American audiences, it might've been better to take the more immediate post-colonial strife of, say, Lumumba and the Katanga rebellion as the subject, so audiences might get the drift of how these confusing and confused events of today came about through an international historic situation ... Despite references to mineral rights and a white trader character, Ruined can too easily fall into the kind of confused audience perception--and apathy--of "they're just killing each other," exactly the syndrome of The Killing Fields, cut by a kind of Hallmark one-size-fits-all empathy. 

For a drama that's meant to cast light on current events, Ruined falls short of any serviceable production of a two millenia-old classic, like The Trojan Women or Hecuba, at illuminating the interminable conflicts of our world and the human price of survival. 

Which brings up the flipside conundrum to the one signaled by Ruined: can a present-day adaptation and staging of a modern classic, Chekhov's Three Sisters--the Rep's next production--bring out the contemporaneous truth of its originality, without getting lost in a Babel of very up-to-date preoccupations?