Saturday, February 11, 2012

Sans Merci is Intense and Inspiring

By James E. Trainor III

Dreamwell - "Love is the intersection of two poetries," says Elizabeth in the first act of Sans Merci. It's a romantic statement, fitting coming from a lover of Keats, but it comes with a catch: our "poetries" are mad. Elizabeth likens them to demons within, which make us passionate and protective, but tend to drive us to destroy the very things we cherish.

Elizabeth is tormented by the loss of her daughter, Tracy. Tracy was killed in Columbia, where she had gone to help the U'wa Indians protest against drilling in their homeland. She learned about the U'wa from her classmate Kelly, a Political Science major and budding activist.

When Tracy and Kelly meet, their poetries hit head on and intertwine. They tiptoe around for a brief time, admiring each other. Tracy admires Kelly's courage and strength; Kelly admires Tracy's beauty and intellect. Neither is sure how to tell the other she is gay, but when the tension finally breaks, they dive in headfirst and fall completely in love. They live for each other.

And very shortly they die for each other. Except Kelly survives, miraculously, to continue on broken, in agony, and wallowing in grief. She blames herself for Tracy's murder. Elizabeth blames her, too. She, a religious conservative who disapproves of her daughter's relationship in the first place, has taken a pilgrimage to meet Kelly and discuss the incident face-to-face. Elizabeth is seeing her first "lesbian apartment," and Kelly is having her first serious conversation with a Republican. These two woman, who would be sworn enemies at a political rally, must somehow meet across the palpable tension in the room. They both very intimately know very different parts of Tracy, who is gone forever. They're uncomfortable with each other, but they need each other to navigate their shared grief.

The script, by Johnna Adams, is darkly poetic and preoccupied with the more destructive aspects of humanity, but it is also quite funny in parts. The play is littered with uncomfortable moments broken by wry observations, and there's a bit of gallows humor as the characters attempt to get some sort of grip on destinies spun out of control. It's well-crafted, very smart, and altogether haunting. Meg Dobbs' direction shows a deep feeling for the story, and she navigates the peaks and valleys with confidence and care.

The ghost of Tracy's death hangs over the play, talked about by Kelly and Elizabeth, ironically foreshadowed in the scenes with Kelly and Tracy, portrayed explosively on stage in the last scene. In stands for a lot of things, but one of the biggest is humanity's capacity for cruelty.

The experience takes Kelly down a notch. She still has posters of Rachel Corrie and César Chávez on her wall, but her passion is a bit muted. She still doesn't want to live in a world without pity or mercy, but now understands the price for standing up. Elizabeth, for her part, can't bring herself to feel pity for anyone but herself and her daughter. The clash between the two brings up interesting questions. Should Gandhi have kept his head low and looked out for his family? Is it reckless for a young American woman to go to Palestine to stand in front of a bulldozer, or is the only way to be heard? If no one speaks up out of fear, have we lost all hope for peace?

The play doesn't answer these questions - it leaves them hanging, like the bitter, unresolved grief of the main characters - but it does do an excellent job of portraying exactly what the stakes are. And Dreamwell's actors do a fabulous job of inhabiting these dark and passionate characters.

Elisabeth Ross plays the fragile and lovable Tracy. Her first scene is quite effective; Tracy has a fear of public speaking, and must give a presentation on Keats to her class. Ross starts with confidence, but gradually builds into a shaking, nervous panic. She takes great care here with her physicality and vocal energy, and the result is quite uncomfortable to watch. If you've ever seen a speaker overcome with stage fright, it's embarrassing for everyone in the room, and Ross hit the tone exactly. With Kelly, however, Tracy opens up and finds her voice, and these scenes are a delight. The two hang on each other's every word, the sexual tension is apparent, and the romantic relationship is believable. Her final monologue is extremely powerful; what was at first a timid but compassionate young woman has become a creature of feminine fury, a symbol of unkillable moral outrage.

Avonique Tipsword is incredible as Kelly. Her physical choices are subtle and well thought-out; she walks with a cane, having been shot in the leg, but doesn't exaggerate the posture or oversell it at all. In both the present day and in the flashbacks, she leans into the character with all her attention and energy. Tipsword is a very generous scene partner; in particular she is good at listening and responding during the speeches of others, and in saying a lot with just a few words. It's a skill that's well applied in this play, which is full of moments where the action hinges on subtext and unspoken but overwhelming feelings.

Annette Rohlk also masters these moments well. She plays a character a bit more sophisticated than the two young woman, one who has learned to cover up her animosity with a chatty nervous energy. She sets the pace of the first scene when she comes on, trying to make little jokes to cover the enormity of the situation, creating an awkward buzz that drops into an uncomfortable silence when Kelly realizes who she is. Another good moment for Rohlk is when Elizabeth is sorting through the backpack Tracy wore on the fatal trip to Columbia. In an absurd but heartbreaking gesture, she cuts half of the hair from Tracy's brush and hands it to Kelly. In a bizarre, self-made ritual, she divides all the possessions thus, composed and matriarchal, demarcating the two very different experiences of the dead woman.

Meanwhile, Kelly lays out Tracy's clothes on the couch in the shape of a person, creating a ghost lover in her living room. She will later cuddle up against this avatar while listening to Tracy's last words on her iPod. It's in little gestures like these that Sans Merci really succeeds; faced with the problem of how to dramatically portray an internal emotion like grief, Adams comes up with these almost expressionist tableaus to show us women actively struggling for stability, creating a cliff wall to dig into and hang on to for dear life. It's a wonderfully written, directed, and acted scene, and it stands as a testament to why we still go to live performances in the digital age.

The acting and pacing in this production were excellent; kudos to Meg Dobbs for selecting a great cast and guiding them through the process. The set, designed by Rich Riggleman, was simple and effective; a realistic apartment, separated by curtains for the flashback scenes, and just a few well-chosen props to suggest a college dorm. The costumes were equally effective, and all quick changes went off smoothly. Ross' costume in Scene 3 is a great example of storytelling by wardrobe; her outfit, along with the bit of rouge on her cheeks, tells us a lot about how she feels for Kelly. The lights (also by Rich Riggleman) and sound (by Brian Tanner) do a great job of setting the emotional tone for each scene; the rain for the present-day scenes is particularly dreary and oppressive.

All the elements come together in the end, when we see Tracy appear behind the window to rail at the men who raped her. The staging and lighting create a striking image - she is naked and haunting, already a ghost, but powerful in her fury - and Ross' acting and the reactions of Tipsword and Rohlk carry through the setup very effectively. One wonders if Rohlk's sobs go on a touch too long, as Tracy's last words speak loudly and clearly for themselves, but that's more a matter of taste than anything.

Sans Merci is a difficult play to watch, gripping as it is in its depictions of grief, but it's also quite a moving and inspiring spectacle. Grim as these women are, they will carry on, and Tracy's memory will live to inspire future generations who wonder whether they have the courage to stand up against injustice. It's easy to see why this piece was chosen for Dreamwell's "Here I Stand" season. It reminds us that life, if it is to be lived fully, requires love and joy but also pity and mercy, and that our destinies, if we are to meet them, require profound sacrifice.

Sans Merci plays February 11, 17 and 18, at the Unitarian Universalist Society in Iowa City. Tickets are $13 ($10 for students). The production contains nudity and a gunshot, and is recommended for mature audiences.

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