Family makes one crazy and keeps one sane. With our families we fight and dream and wake up every day to face the realities of life. They say every child is born into a different family. Conversely, every adult walks into and then goes about constructing another kind of family altogether. Some may not see RUINED as a drama about family. Some may regard it as a drama about war, or rape or every kind of violence. The production currently playing at The Stagecrafters, their 517th, makes a strong case for the value of family, no matter how scattered the make-up and how ultimately dysfunctional the relationships.
Set in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the present time, this story takes the audience on an emotional journey through the lives, loss, despair and destruction that is universally a part of war torn towns. RUINED explores the lives of those who encounter Mama Nadi at her bar and bordello. This is a challenging piece of theater demonstrating how a talented director can guide and finesse a cast, resulting in an invisible hand. Director Catherine Pappas is to be applauded for her bravery in choosing such a piece, as well as her ability to tell the story with honesty and no shame. The average audience member may not be fully aware of the meaning of ruined, by the standards of the African women and men using the term. Many are aware of the various ways in which women are mutilated. It is helpful to know something of African culture for full appreciation of the show, but not mandatory. Audience members stay actively engaged, to the point of vocalizing during tense, humorous, and heart wrenching scenes.
This production is all about the women. Powerful, beautiful, vulnerable, and strong, the women in RUINED dominate the stage. Tiffany Bacon, Erin Nicole Stewart, Liz Priestley and Carléne Pochette form a masterful female ensemble. The men, as a group, present the audience with the antagonist. Playing a variety of roles, many of the males don’t have the opportunity the script gives the women to build the same kind of finely fashioned characters.
The ruination of a person can be slow or take place in a split second. As the characters’ stories unfold in RUINED, the audience experiences the deterioration of individuals who move toward the construction, and subsequent creation of new identities among an extremely nontraditional nuclear family.
From the first moment we meet her, Mama Nadi is large and in charge. Her personality bespeaks a no-nonsense, tough, take control, woman of the world. We come to learn that she has her troubles. Tiffany Bacon portrays Mama with bravado, commitment, flourish and exquisite talent. Bacon makes us believe. She carries the burden for all as business owner, bartender, bookkeeper, madam, doctor, nurse, therapist, friend, woman and storyteller. Bacon marches about with the confidence of a general reviewing troops, while alternately delivering delicacy and intimacy, bravery and terror. Using a regional accent, as does the entire cast, African inspired costuming, and a deep well of research and understanding, Bacon is Mama. We’ve met her. We’ve felt her sting and her warm embrace. When emotions run high, Bacon’s commitment to anger, despair, suspicion, empathy, and the will to survive creates the life on stage. Through her, Bacon’s fellow players and the audience find their way through the troubling rain waters of the Congo to the lifeboat of an unlikely family. Mama gives us the dynamite and the bandages; Bacon brilliantly brings us through the deserts and jungles to her oasis.
Erin Nicole Stewart’s portrayal of Salima is unpredictable and full of tragic truth. Stewart’s retelling of the worst of horrors elicited open audience sobbing during the sold-out Thursday night April 18, performance. Stewart is stalwart in her portrayal, allowing Salima’s deeply battered body and soul to unfold and steal slowly over the character. With disbelief and shock, Salima’s story is revealed and absorbed. Stewart makes us see and feel the horror of war with her intricate and complex portrayal. During one demanding monologue, Stewart leads us to full understanding of the misery of Salima’s sorrow filled situation. Stewart is masterful in her retelling, allowing the story and character to lead the way, staying in control while seething with pent up rage and despair. Stewart leaves us haunted.
Sophie sings her way through the opening portions of the show. Liz Priestley gifts the character with her rich and sumptuous vocals. Priestley, as Sophie, wears her physical pain openly at first, allowing her mental and emotional pain to emerge only after her wounds heal. Creating Sophie as a quieter role, Priestley portrays a character full of restraint, empathy, compassion, fear, despair and hope. Through Priestley we are exposed to what will be her lifelong embodiment of the remnants of the attack of warriors. Imbuing her character with strength, she teaches that humans can find ways to carry on and aspire to more in the most impossible of situations. Priestley poignantly plays a young woman forever changed by war. Not an easy task, Priestley gives us a young girl who is angry and fearful for herself and others, but ultimately full of hope while planning for a better future, full of joy as she shares her melodious musical gift, and filled with the deep will to survive it all. A complex and perplexing jumble of character aspects is untangled through the delicate artistry of Priestley.
Josephine reveals the least about her situation ‘before Mama’, but represents the here and now with sensuous abandon. Carléne Pochette powerfully displays raw sexuality, as Pochette’s Josephine seduces her way through every situation with a seeming acceptance of the reality of her circumstance. Josephine does her job well and Pochette allows her to do so without shame, but rather with conviction. An artistic accomplice to Sophie’s songs, Josephine dances her way to joy. Pochette empowers her character through dance, while exposing the rage and despair of which her Josephine rarely speaks.
Not to be overlooked, the men do offer the perspective needed upon which the foundation of the show is built. If the women are fighters and survivors, the men are soldiers, killers, mercenaries, leaders, despots and the perpetrators of violence toward each other and the women. In Mama Nadi’s place they become satisfied, but are never satiated. They are asked to leave their warring world outside, their bullets in a basket and their mark upon none. Mama keeps them in line by any means necessary.
Among those displaying some compassion rather than only passion or violence are Christian (Maurice A. Tucker), Mr. Harari (Paul Diferdinando), and Fortune (Brian Neal). Neal gives us love sickness and remorse. Diferdinando gives us lust with a dose of humor, a hint at dour hope, and a dash of charm. Tucker delivers a complex male. At once mercenary, he is a poet at heart. Along with empathy, he delivers callousness. Love and lust comingle with commitment, understanding, tenacity, and courage of convictions. A brief fall from grace allows for redemption, as Tucker finesses his way into the hearts of many.
The set and costumes present the audience with the gritty nature of owning and operating a business in the Congo. Nothing is fancy, but it is just right to suggest a ragtag Congo establishment. The well decorated set gives the characters a home. The stage at Stagecrafters is not large, but that adds to the closeness of the steamy scenes and the claustrophobic nature of the bleak situation. Costumes compliment and stylize this piece adding color, sexiness, and terror. Even the props can be recognized as important, not overdone and a valuable addition to plotline, action, and mood.
Stagecrafters is to be applauded for taking on important, challenging material and presenting it with a clear eye, a strong voice and compassion. Family is important to everyone in ways that may take years and unimaginable situations to uncover. Just who makes a family is a valuable question that is always answered in time. RUINED shows that family is not always related by blood but can rather be brought together and then bound through blood.
RUINED runs through April 28th. If tickets are not purchased in advance and the show is sold out there is a lobby waiting list, but it is best to plan ahead to partake in a fine evening of local theater and avoid disappointment. RUINED is a complex theatrical piece with mature themes, strong language, and violence. Not suitable for younger audience members.
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Catherine Pappas
April 12-28, 2013
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM April 12 – 27
Sundays at 2 PM April 14 – 28
8130 Germantown Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19118