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Shows Worth Seeing:

By Erik Ehn
La Mama E.T.C.
74A E. 4th St.
Box office: (212) 475-7710

Playwright Erik Ehn has made no secret of the fact that he conceived this astonishingly ambitious cycle of 17 plays as an ordeal. “My goal with Soulographie,” he told an interviewer last year, “is to approach genocide from as many points of view as I can. It’s meant to be too much and more than anyone can see and more than anyone can withstand.” The idea behind the project is to explore the grisly subject of genocide not from an historical or documentary perspective but rather from an interior angle, investigating the social and psychological mechanisms that permit ordinary humans like us to commit such crimes. Given Ehn’s propensity for overlapping strata of fantasy and reality, his exploration is likely to be mystifying to some. It will also likely ruffle many feathers, since who wants to imagine him/herself as fundamentally akin to Eichmann and Himmler? The massive undertaking at La Mama, with each play produced separately by a different company and brought together for a 2-day marathon performance, amounts to a utopian exercise in empathy and therapeutic imagination.

Judging from the two plays I saw—Drunk Still Drinking, directed by Alison Russo, and Burnt Umber, directed by Mia Rovegno—the marathon will probably have wide quality swings. Drunk Still Drinking is an odyssey where an American woman travels to Europe to buy shoes, falls in love with a singer who turns out to be a political fugitive wanted for inciting genocide in Rwanda, and then sinks into poverty and spiritual confusion. The text is powerful, but what Russo has done with it is unfortunately theatrically inert: the dialogue is distributed among three actors who dash about in circles and speak not to each other but rather droningly and mechanistically into microphones on stands. Burnt Umber, thankfully, is magnificent—grounded just enough in reality to tap the strong human pith of the material. The characters include a college professor whose academic specialty is genocide denial, a mother who loses interest in domesticity after a National Guard tour in Srebrenica, and an autistic girl who likes to hear genocide tales as bedtime stories. The cast is superb (including Jan Leslie Harding, Emma Galvin, Jocelyn Kuritsky, Andrew Garman and Birgit Huppuch), and Rovegno uses folksy guitar music and William Kenntridge-like animation to add unforgettable poignancy to the strange play of innocence and complicity in the action. If even a few of the other plays in the marathon contain this much vigor, the time investment will pay big dividends.



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