Arts & Culture » Theater

Harm's Way

Upstream Theater takes another risk that pays off.


Back in April Upstream Theater presented a play (Alma en venta/Soul on Sale) about a Mexican-American artist and staged it in an art studio. The company's current production, Marija's Pictures, also features a painter as the central character, but this time the drama focuses on the ravages of war and is performed in a former church sanctuary. Told from the viewpoint of one Croatian woman who is driven from her village in a wave of ethnic cleansing, Marija's Pictures paints an impressionistic portrait of what is sometimes euphemistically referred to as "collateral damage."

Croatian playwright Lydia Scheuermann Hodak, whose work is translated by Nina H. Antoljak, has written a piece that is often more poem than drama. In a series of monologues, Marija (Linda Kennedy) takes us on a journey through her ordinary life, a life that is transformed by the invasion of the Yugoslav army. Marija is a painter, and she describes her world in vivid detail. But when rape and death come at the hands of soldiers (some of whom are villagers she knew as young boys), and when she and her daughter are forced out of their home, she loses her ability to paint and her will to live. Befriended by Ksenija (Jane Paradise), another displaced person, Marija eventually finds a reason to return to life.

Director Philip Boehm's intelligent casting of Kennedy, an African-American actress, in the role of a Marija, makes her story seem more universal. Kennedy is certainly Marija, but she also represents other mothers who have lost children, other women who have been raped, other survivors from other wars from times past and present. Kennedy is rock solid in her performance, compelling from first to last. She slips easily back and forth from Marija into other roles (her grandfather, a drunk commandant). Her final moments in particular are riveting, as she faces her own mistakes and summons up the courage to move past them.

As Marija's daughter, Lucija, Elizabeth Birkenmeier is stunning. A ghostly presence, she glides silently through the stage space and convincingly portrays a series of complex emotions. The three actresses sing beautiful songs, and their harmonies are haunting. The musical landscape is painted by Farshid Soltanshahi, who plays a variety of instruments that effectively evoke the moods of the play.

Boehm does a masterful job of bringing together word, music, emotion and architecture. The audience sits in church pews; candles placed around the venue evoke a sense of holiness. The actors move around the entire theater space, even appearing in wall recesses and behind screens. With limited materials, scenic and lighting designer Patrick Huber has created a visual feast, using projections of artwork by Andrea Musa to indicate shifts in location, time and emotion, and playing effectively with shadow and light.

As in his previous production, Boehm explores the fusion of various art forms and ideas in a variety of ways — some frustrating, some fascinating. The audience is not allowed into the theater until five minutes before the show begins, making for an uncomfortable and atypical preshow waiting experience. The unusual stage location raises intriguing questions about the relationship between art and spirit and fuses nicely with the faith of the characters. The monologue-driven show, laced with music and image, is sometimes slow — it's ironic that Hodak has Marija use words to paint an image of her world instead of literally showing us, as a picture would be more effective than the wordy descriptions.

Upstream Theater is certainly doing work that is unique in the St. Louis area; this 65-minute piece clearly fulfills the company's mission to bring "an international perspective to local stages." Marija's Pictures touches on a story that is very real to the 50,000 former Yugoslavs who live in St. Louis. Unfortunately it's a story that is not unique to one family or one war — it's a story that continues somewhere in the world even as you read these words.

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