Directed by John Vreeke
Striking a Blow For Forgiveness
With 'The Monument,' Playwright Wrestled With Some Brutal
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 13, 2006; Page C05
"The Monument," Canadian dramatist Colleen Wagner's play about
war and ethnic blood feuds, roils with rage, grief and a stylized
brutality. Her script doesn't specify the time or place, but the
Theater Alliance production, at the H Street Playhouse through Sunday,
echoes Bosnia during the 1990s.
John Vreeke, who directed the production, says the 85-minute
piece is a blank-verse poem. "The rhythms are defined by the placement
of the text on the page. It reads like a contemporary Greek tragedy,"
In it, Mejra (played by Jennifer Mendenhall), the mother of a
young woman who is one of many that a soldier may have raped and killed
"following orders," gets the soldier released just minutes before he is
be executed. She then forces the shackled man, Stetko (Alexander
into the forest with her to search for the remains of his victims.
"I feel like it's all about essences," Mendenhall says. "It
could be Bosnia, it could be Rwanda, it could be Auschwitz, it could be
anywhere that horrible things are done, and then it's
like, here are the common denominators."
Wagner, from her home in New Brunswick, says she wrote "The
Monument" after an extended sojourn in Southeast Asia. "When I came
back in 1993, there were 43 bloody civil wars going on in the world . .
. and the former Yugoslavia was one of them, but so was Rwanda,
Somalia, endless wars in Africa and,
of course, East Timor," she says.
She had been commissioned to write a play about the
the Canadian north, but the characters in "The Monument" kept butting
first in the form of Stetko's opening monologue, describing his
atrocities with bravado, even as his execution is imminent. "I was
pretty shocked by this voice, this character that I was hearing, but I
thought, well, interesting exercise," Wagner says. "These characters
forced themselves upon me. They were there and I simply had to write
it. . . . I wrote it actually in about three weeks, then spent a year
trying to do that last scene."
That scene hints at the possibility of forgiveness and
reconciliation. It comes after nearly 90 minutes of recriminations and
Mejra slaps Stetko across the face many times in a kind of
vengeance ballet and later erupts in an even greater fury. But in the
intimate space of the H Street Playhouse, Vreeke says he decided
against choreographing "realistic" blows in favor of stylization.
"She's swinging her hands, she's making a grunting sound like she's
slapping, he's making a grunting sound like he's being slapped. You can
see what's going on in his face. . . . You couldn't see that if we
tried to make it real."
The non-naturalistic approach to the violence was intended to
"remove people from trying to analyze it as being real or fake, and
expose what it really is, which is this grotesque and horrific
activity," Strain says.
It was hard, Wagner says, to portray the mother as anything
other than fully justified in her actions, but she opted for a more
difficult conclusion. "I wanted her to be a little more saintly. But in
truth, she couldn't be, and in truth, we're not. And what I discovered,
really, is only by coming to that place, where they can both look at
each other and realize, yes,
I am no different than you, my hands are as bloodied as yours" can they
ask, "where can we go?"
A MONUMENTAL ACHIEVEMENT
Beginning with Alexander Strain’s opening lines
obvious that Colleen Wagner’s The Monument, mounted at H
by Theater Alliance, is a play that describes horrible pain and
This production draws you in to its tragic narrative and by plays end
find yourself left with many difficult questions to ponder. Not an
of light entertainment, one should be prepared for something far more
in order to do the production justice. John Vreeke’s firm direction
through the dark script, bringing out the human frailty that hides
the terror of war.
The plot is simple, during an unnamed genocide Alexander Strain
(Stetko) has brutally murdered and raped twenty two young women and
buried them where their families could not mourn their deaths.
Convicted of war crimes, he awaits his execution strapped to a
gurney. He describes the gory details of his crimes as he twists
against the restraints. Jennifer Mendenhall (Mejra), a frail woman
dressed in torn clothing steps from the audience with an offer he
cannot refuse. Stetko is spared the gallows and agrees to follow her
every direction for the rest of his life. What follows is a journey for
both characters, one in which they discover unknown things about
themselves and in addition they discover truths they wish could
remain buried beneath the scorched earth of war. In the end we
have feelings for both of them, both compassion and disdain and a
lingering feeling that the terrors witnessed by these
two people will be subjected on many more victims until people
learn to communicate with each other.
Alexander Strain shows great range in a role that is different
from any we have seen him in previously. His character is weak and
filled with self loathing but has a violent evil side. Strain
seems to grow in the role as the play progresses – at times his
performance becomes so horribly real that his glare is terrifying.
Jennifer Mendenhall’s Mejra is incredibly complex but she handles it
with seemed ease. This character holds inside her heavy burdens
threaten to drag her into the earth that holds not only her daughter
the thousands of nameless victims of terror and genocide. Ms.
character becomes larger than life as the conclusion nears and she is
to show us both sides of this woman who has mixed feelings about the
who murdered her child.
The set at H Street for this play was a dark, dirty stage that well
represented the aftermath of war, the eye-sore of human inventions.
Various articles of tattered female clothing are tacked to the rear
wall of the stage as if to honor all that remains of their short lives.
In an interview with DCTR before the show Ms. Mendenhall expressed the
importance of this and other plays that force us to reason through
difficult questions and situations. The passion she brings to this play
is significant and it is my feeling that this is not a show to miss. The
Monument and its lessons are well worth your time.
|May 20 - June
Running time 1:20 - No
A Potomac Stages pick as a searing exploration of the brutality of war crimes
Entering the H Street Playhouse has been like entering a zone of
heightened reality of late. Ever since it was the mental landscape of Mary's
Wedding, the space has been a northern woods outpost (The
Spitfire Grill), the backstreets of revolutionary Paris (Headman's
Holiday), a Victorian era courtroom (Gross Indecency), a
blank space for reminiscences (You Are Here), an intellectual refuge in
repressive Iran (Haroun and the Sea of Stories) and both rooms
imprisoning a hostage in the Middle East and his wife back home (Two
Rooms). That's the thing about black box spaces. So often the
audience's first exposure to the world of the play is not when a
curtain comes up but when they first wander in to take their seats. For
this absorbing exploration of brutality, you know you are in for a
harrowing time when you enter to see that a man is strapped
to a gurney, occasionally twisting or squirming as he awaits something
that you know isn't going to be altogether pleasant. But you take your
seat and watch this sometimes brutal but always fascinating one-act
experience because you are already intrigued, already caught up in the
theatrical experience even before the lights go down.
Storyline: In an
Eastern European country wracked by genocidal war, a lowly private in
the defeated army has been convicted of dozens of rapes and murders.
Just prior to his execution, he's offered a reprieve, but not release,
by a woman who puts him to hard labor and even harder mistreatment for
reasons of her own.
This is the US premiere of
Canadian playwright Colleen Wagner's oft-times excruciatingly brutal
look at the impact of war crimes on both the victim and the
perpetrator. That the location seems somewhat Eastern European (think
Bosnia) doesn't negate
the fact that the playwright is working on a universal level here. She
puts the case from the victim's perspective into the hands of the
of a victim of rape as an act of genocidal war, but she's first and
foremost a mother and her pain is unrelated to the "cause" which
the violence. The fascinating thing in the author's construct, however,
is the portrait of the raper/killer, which shows him too to be
a victim of forces not only beyond his control but beyond his
The troop soldiers of genocidal war are just pawns in an overwhelming
struggle and the removal of restraints releases impulses that have
Alexander Strain and
are the man and woman whose battle is played out on Nick Vaughan's
steel mesh and dirt set. Mendenhall comes after Strain with a vengeance
- a suitable approach given the circumstances. She not only berates
him verbally, she yokes him like an oxen working the fields, shackles
him like a dog and smashes him repeatedly with a shovel. Her release
of anger and frustration is frightening to behold. Strain absorbs it
all while making his own voyage from resignation to recognition - but
not to remorse. Both performances are compelling releases of pure
which, under John Vreeke's taught direction, avoids looking like an
actors artifice. The emotions may be amplified by the immediacy of the
black box environment but they feel very real.
There seems to be an
unaccountable trend afoot in the local theater community to leave
non-speaking members of the cast uncredited. First Studio Theatre
Secondstage left Shawn Helm, who was the non-speaking but very much
present guard throughout key scenes of Frozen off the cast
list. Now we have an omni-present and even more central presence
hovering in the background and occasionally taking center stage in this
play which is not identified either by character's name or by
performer's. Whoever she is, she does a very nice job and deserves a
bit of recognition.
Written by Colleen
by John Vreeke. Design: Nick Vaughan (set) Deb Sivigny (costumes)
Maloney (properties) Dan Covey (lights) Ryan Rumery (sound) Colin Hovde
(photography) Jack Rizzotti (stage manager). Cast: Jennifer Mendenhall,