Friday, April 11, 2003 OC Register: ‘Liberation’ shows War’s Internal Toll. Rude Guerrilla’s staging about the war in Bosnia hits disturbingly close to home. By Eric Marchese
With war so prevalent in the news in recent months, Rude Guerrilla Theater Company’s staging of “Liberation” couldn’t be more timely. Even though the 1998 drama deals not with Iraq but with the brutal horrors of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans throughout the 1990s, it has enough elements to show us that, though military actions may have seemingly clear-cut winners and losers, the aftermath is a dicey and complicated matter, always with shattered lives – often of civilians.
It’s also a feather in Rude Guerrilla’s cap that its staging at the Empire Theater in downtown Santa Ana is only “Liberation’s” second full production. It isn’t the first time (nor will it be the last) that the folks at Rude G have gone out on a limb with an OrangeCounty, regional, West Coast or U.S. premiere of a play dealing with life’s harsher issues. It’s been more than five years since the troupe set up shop, and it has lived up to its mission of providing alternative, “in your face” theater worthy of serious debate, by playwrights such as MarkRavenhill, SarahKane, RonaldHarwood, PingChong, TerenceMcNally, WendyMac Leod, TedTalley and BradFraser.
Add StevePatterson to that list. As artistic director and resident playwright of Pavement Productions in Portland (Ore.), Patterson has written more than 30 over the past decade. “Liberation” follows the publisher, editors and staff of a newspaper office in Sarajevo that has covered the war in Bosnia from its inception. A reporter uncovers Tuna, a Serbian soldier who deserted out of disgust over the rapes and massacres of civilians ordered by his superiors. Petar has brought Tuna and his sister, Lana, to the office and offered them sanctuary and safe passage out of Bosnia in exchange for an exclusive interview in which he will condemn Serbia’s military command and testify to the atrocities he has witnessed.
The Serbian military, though, has discovered Tuna’s presence and cut off the newspaper building’s heat, electricity and telephones in an attempt to get the journalists to give him up. Tuna, meantime, refuses to grant the interview until he and his sister’s safety is guaranteed by the paper’s publisher, Zlatko, creating an agonizing game of “chicken” wherein Zlatko and Tuna square off, each full of mistrust, each waiting for the other to blink.
Patterson wrings incredible tension out of this high-stakes scenario. All along, the staff and editors have been at loggerheads over how to cover the war. It’s wintertime, and without heat the office’s occupants are nearly frozen. When the army fires shells at the building’s windows, newspaper employees are cut by broken glass, and a young Croatian reporter is left alive but in agony as fragments of glass lodge in and infect her eyes.
Though the Bosnian war’s horrors were shocking and easily grasped, the details of the conflict, which involved Serbs, Muslims and Croats, were not. Wisely, Patterson doesn’t try to explain these complexities. He has merely to show a handful of loosely sketched characters getting sucked into a dark vortex to make the point that war is a surreal experience that warps all understanding. When Zlatko and others detail the stomach-churning nature of ethnic cleansing, we’re reminded of Hitler and his “final solution,” while the many references to U.N. observers and peacekeepers prompts the question, as the Iraqi conflict has done, of the role of the United Nations in world affairs. Decades and even centuries may pass, Patterson states, but human nature is unchanging. His characters are mature professionals trying to keep level heads amid an escalating crisis. By the play’s end, nearly all have been shattered by violent events that are realistically grim and more than a little disturbing.
All this and more come through in JodyJ.Reeves’ powerful staging, which is well-directed and, almost without exception, skillfully acted. JustinL.Waggle is explosive as the fiery Tuna, his dialect and vocal inflections capturing this cynical soldier’s bitterness and contempt. As wholly credible is Kristian Capalik, a native of Bosnia, who plays hotheaded young reporter Petar. LuzVioletaGovill is affecting as Milana, the young, elegant Croatian blinded by shards of glass. AndrewNienaber delivers a memorable portrait as Dado, the jaded press room chief itching to use physical force to coerce Tuna into delivering the promised interview. Solid supporting work is given by CraigJohnson and MelitaAnnSagar as employees caught in the crossfire, and by JamiMcCoy, as Tuna’s equally blameless sister.
As Zlatko, DavidRusiecki is miscast – he’s far younger than the role demands and lacks the gravitas and acting chops to pull it off. But as his wife, Vedrana, DeborahConroy is simply superb. The story’s moral center and humanistic heart, Conroy’s Vedrana is palpably anxious even while trying to maintain her cool. And as this tale nears its violent conclusion, it’s all Vedrana can do to choke back tears – a reaction many an audience member may share.
Forget the Dramatics, Liberate by RobertTomoguchi wallfour.com
There are many good reasons to see the current production of StevePatterson’s “Liberation” at Rude Guerrilla. Maybe you know nothing about the atrocities committed by the Serbian Army. Maybe you heard they play Mozart’s Requiem during the show. Maybe you wanted to see something billed as the “California Premiere”. Or maybe you just want to see really good theater.
Though paling by comparison to the atrocities related on stage, it would certainly be criminal to reduce this show by merely calling it a drama. A drama would suggest dramatics. But somewhere during this show, you will feel so caught up in it that you will forget that you are an audience member, watching anything at all that resembles performance. DirectorJodyJ.Reeves has successfully taken this moving script with a powerful subject, and carefully combined it with an atmosphere and performances that make it impossible to avoid being enveloped by its plot and characters.
Set in the last surviving newspaper room in Sarajevo, a Serbian army deserter comes seeking refuge, but his mere presence there is what ultimately takes the news people hostage, and thus we have a very interesting role reversal, where the refugee becomes the captor. Beyond the civil war going on outside, we witness the divisions going on inside the newsroom as well: between brother and sister, husband and wife, war criminal and janitor.
The deserter is named Tuna and is played by JustinL.Waggle. Along with his sister Lana (JamiMcCoy), he is first brought to the newsroom by Petar (Kristian Capalik). Though certainly preoccupied with danger of his present classification as a deserter from a criminal army, as well as being hardened from the human atrocities in which he has participated, Waggle’s entrance seemed to rigid if not Cro-Magnon in his posturing. It isn’t until later, as he interacts more personally with Lana, and then the heads of the newspaper Zlatko (DavidRusiecki) and Vedrana (DeborahConroy) that Waggle evolves his character into something less stiff, and thereby brings a real potency to the energy of the show.
Playwright StevePatterson has set up this newsroom to work like forum to give space for each of these characters to tell their stories, both before and during the war. In doing so he shows us that all of these people, including the participants, were victimized in one way or another. The atrocities that unfold in each re-telling work to demystify while producing an abhorrently vibrant account of the events of and surrounding the war. The plot ultimately drives toward the story Tuna has to tell. Having himself participated in the systematic atrocities committed by the Serbian Army, it is his story that must be told to the world, and their current hostage crisis cannot end until he tells it. Yet in hearing the accounts of what each of these news-reporting-civilians had to endure, the teasing manner in which Tuna’s story is dangled before the press and the audience–will he talk? or will he not talk?–made me care less about hearing his story at all, especially because the motivations of getting his story are undermined by something as ignoble as simply getting a scoop. But hey, I said this thing felt real, and Patterson himself has been a reporter, so maybe that’s the way it is. Eventually Tuna tells his story, but when he does we don’t hear it. Lights fade on the scene, etc. Now I feel betrayed. Teased and betrayed. Was it too horrible for us to hear? Was Patterson afraid we would no longer feel sympathetic to Tuna?
But beside all of that nitpicking, Patterson has created a show that is charged with energy and emotion around a subject that really matters. The relationship between the husband and wife Zlatko and Vedrana, certainly bring about some of the most compelling dynamics, as a couple of mixed ethnicity in a war torn country being brutalized by ethnic cleansing. The forceful conflict between Dado (AndrewNienaber) and Tuna, balanced with the more subtle and recessed tension between Milena and Sasha (LuzVioletaGovill and MelitaAnnSagar), at once gives a good illustration of the war currently raging alongside the underlying and historical feelings that helped it culminate. And still with all of that, Patterson is able to give us the character of Ismail (CraigJohnson). Though himself not beyond the reaches of war, he was able to add his own comedic flair to the show. Certainly sarcastic, Johnson’s punch lines were certainly welcome when they were delivered.
All in all, the show is so powerful that it moves through you as its scenes fly by. But as an audience member, you may not walk out of a performance of Liberation feeling liberated, the show inside is so encompassing that it is hard not to take it home with you.
BackstageWest.com, Southern CA, April 16, 2003: Liberation Reviewed By KristinaMannion
Politics, money, religion, power. The forces and circumstances that lead men to war are many and varied. But the devastating human cost of war never changes. That’s the stark and visceral truth that’s communicated in this StevePatterson drama, which reminds us of the terrible atrocities committed during the early 1990s war in Bosnia. Set in the offices of a barely operating Sarajevo newspaper, Patterson’s tension-filled script focuses on the plight of the paper’s employees: a multi-ethnic group that risks life and limb on a daily basis in pursuit of maintaining a free press. Increasingly hampered by the encroaching Serbs, the band of hardscrabble journalists faces an even greater challenge when a Serb army deserter and his sister seek asylum in the offices in exchange for his revelation of war crimes committed by the army. The resulting dilemma–as the editors attempt to bargain with the wary soldier and the Serb forces close in on the building in search of the deserter–presents a candid, brutal depiction of the horrific Yugoslav crisis. Although it suffers from a shaky start and a somewhat unpolished feel, this Rude Guerrilla production nevertheless offers a compelling rendition of Patterson’s work. Fully embracing the play’s unflinching detail, director JodyJ.Reeves and her ensemble create an edgy atmosphere that ticks inexorably toward the script’s violent, tragic conclusion. In the end, this honest staging appropriately forces us to ponder the consequences of war on a human level rather than through a narrow lens colored by political or other motivations. Despite some miscues and overlapped lines, which are most notable in the opening scenes, the nine-member cast largely delivers the right amount of intensity for this harrowing story. Turning in the most effective portrayals are DeborahConroy as assertive lead editor Vedrana, and JustinL.Waggle, who plays Tuna, the belligerent deserter. Both display skill at subtly underscoring their characters’ internal turmoil. Waggle is especially moving in the final explosive scenes, as Tuna’s hard shell cracks and the pain of having participated in the army’s brutal ethnic “cleansing” begins to take its toll. Also noteworthy is AndrewNienaber’s passionate depiction of an angry but heroic press operator. Adding further impact to the proceedings, Reeves and her skilled technical crew incorporate several visual elements that turn Patterson’s tragedy into a realistic nightmare. The ultimate mix of lighting, props, choreography, and other staging elements combine to create a powerful experience.
“liberation” rude guerrilla theater co., at the empire theater, santa ana, ca; 18 april 03. reviewed by mark jonas
Now imagine it shelled, and people bleeding in the streets, and going to work amid gunfire, driving past the ruins of places they used to know and love.
The city was Sarajevo; the time was the early 1990s. If you study photos of Sarajevo during the warfare of that time, you’re struck by how “western,” even how “American” parts of it look. In the right light, the offices, stores and avenues could pass for Brooklyn, Boston, Cleveland, or Oakland or Los Angeles…even Orange County, CA.
OrangeCounty is where you’ll find a powerful new play about Sarajevo: StevePatterson’s “Liberation”, now at Santa Ana’s Empire Theater. It’s brought to you by Rude Guerrilla Theater Company.
Patterson is not Bosnian; he is Oregonian. He is from Portland, where “Liberation” was produced by Stark Raving Theatre. According to the program biography, he has worked as a reporter, and that has probably given him the ability to “shape” a story and to see and interpret different points of view. Appropriately, his play is set in a newspaper office. It’s an exciting choice, a useful “neutral ground” from which to explore the psychology of warand ethnic conflict.
It’s no ordinary day for the reporters and editors at one of Sarajevo’s major newspapers. Paper and ink shortages threaten tomorrow’s edition. And suddenly, so does the arrival of a Serb army deserter, Tuna (JustinL.Waggle). Tuna wants to come clean on the Serbian army’s atrocities — the ethnic cleansing, rape and murder of Bosnian Muslims, and Croats. It’s a scoop for reporter Petar (Kristian Capalik); it’s a path toward asylum for Tuna and his sister Lana (JamiMcCoy).
It is January, and the Serbs have been shelling the city for months — a campaign that will eventually kill more than 10,500 of Sarajevo’s half-million citizens, and wound tens of thousands more physically and psychologically. Trying to hold down the fort of the fifth estate are Zlatko, the publisher (DavidRusiecki), and his secular Muslim wife Vedrana (DeborahConroy), who edits. Four other staffers continue to work: Milena and Ismail (LuzVioletaGovill, CraigJohnson), and Sasha and Dado (MelitaAnnSagar, AndrewNienaber).
There are problems enough harboring a deserter from an enemy army, but things get worse. A Serb general parks tanks and troops up the street from the office, and spreads propaganda painting Tuna as a Muslim terrorist holding the paper hostage. When the building is shelled by the army, blood runs and hope escapes.
“Liberation” does not present an audience with poetic transcendence, comic relief, fantasy sequences or satire. There is simply more of the same awful situation, and this is one of the play’s strengths. Its characters attempt to publish a newspaper because there is nothing else to do; they become noble because the situation demands nothing less.
More than any other quality, “Liberation” conveys the despondency and resignation of life in wartime; its characters feel deadened by degrees. Everyone has a story (“we are pincushioned with stories,” Ismail ruefully notes) of seeing people killed, or shellshocked or maimed. The play’s first and last lines come with a signature irony — one of the only good weapons left.
Director Jody J. Reeves has pulled some strong performances from her cast. (One of her actors, Kristian Capalik, actually spent his childhood in Sarajevo.) Waggle is clearly a very dedicated and very good young actor, playing Tuna with notable presence and nuance. As Vedrana, Conroy projects real dignity and ready compassion. Govill gets to handle the play’s best prose (an extended recollection of the old Sarajevo) and the play’s most wrenching scene, which really does make you want to leave your seat and grab a first aid kit. Reeves could have kept a closer rein on some things. Govill (playing a Croat) uses what sounds like a thick Russian accent in an otherwise accent-free production, and Rusiecki has been permitted to turn in a placid, almost mellow performance that is out of touch with the emergency of the story. Still, the cast (and script) do collectively resonate.
There’s little happiness in “Liberation”. It’s a heavy, often grueling play. It’s also a good one.
LA TIMES THEATER BEAT: Sacrifice and terror in Bosnia: ‘Liberation’
Director Jody J. Reeves and nine actors bravely commit themselves to a story by Portland, Ore., playwright StevePatterson that graphically depicts the devastation of artillery and arms fire. Copious amounts of fake blood have soaked through clothing and spilled onto the floor by the time this gritty presentation is over.
Set in the early 1990s during the Bosnian conflict, “Liberation” puts a daily newspaper’s offices in harm’s way when one of the reporters (Kristian Capalik) brings in a Serb army deserter (JustinL.Waggle) willing to reveal the atrocities his unit was ordered to commit in a Muslim community. In return, the deserter wants a guarantee of safe passage out of the country for himself and his sister (JamiMcCoy). The army knows where he is, though, and soon the news offices have been sealed off and threatened with attack if the deserter isn’t turned over.
As the clock ticks, the journalists — a mix of Serbs, Croats and Muslims — frantically try to think of a way to publish the revelation, if they can coax it out of the now frightened and recalcitrant deserter. The emotions that pour forth are compellingly conveyed by Waggle as the deserter, who turns hard and bitter as he is eaten alive with shame; Deborah Conroy and David Rusiecki, as husband-and-wife editors who must be compassionate yet ruthless as they make decisions that could mean life or death for their staff; and Andrew Nienaber, Melita Ann Sagar, Craig Johnson and Luz Violeta Govill as employees who may have to make the ultimate sacrifice for their profession.
Patterson pushes his plot and some of his characters too hard as he tries to tweak still more drama from an extreme situation. Still, he makes a strong statement about the power of information. His story is painful to witness, but it certainly resonates.