By James E. Trainor III
photos by Jennifer Fawcett
WGT - As tales of dead journalists make headlines everywhere, Toymaker's War -- the tale of a young woman risking everything to tell a career-making story -- seems eerily timely. The piece is not set in Syria but in Bosnia; it involves a conflict that began nearly thirty years ago today -- long enough ago to give us some poetic distance but recent enough to be emotionally resonant. The script, a new piece by Jennifer Fawcett, examines the role of the West in such conflicts, the devastating effects of civil war on the native population, and the gray areas around which harsh and very real battle lines are drawn.
The story centers around Sylvie, played by Ottavia DeLuca. She is a young Canadian journalist looking for a break, desperate to make an imprint on the world. She's drawn to the conflict in Serbia but is getting nowhere in Sarajevo. When she hears a rumor of a village of orphaned children, she steals a jeep and heads off into the wilderness towards her destiny.
The young Sylvie is idealistic, energetic, and hopelessly naive. She is determined to make herself heard and get the international community to do something about the ethnic cleansing. The story also takes place in the present, however, and the older Sylvie is completely transformed. The experience made her career -- she's now a seasoned war correspondent -- but it also scarred her deeply. When her colleague, Peter (played by Martin Andrews), pries into the details she left out of her story, we find out exactly how.
Young Sylvie thinks she can save Milan (played by Alec Hynes) and his little sister Lejla (played by Dorothy Jolly) by telling their story. Milan, however, is increasingly evasive about just what his story is. The charming teenage boy is something of an enigma. He's playful and childish enough -- the son of a dollmaker who clearly loves the craft -- but he's also cunning and dangerous. He's viciously protective of his sister and suspicious, though tolerant, of the western journalist with her probing questions and fantastic promises. He scoffs when she attempts to use her neutrality as a shield. "It's not my war," she claims. He responds that it wasn't his, either, until it came to him.
The village was already dividing among Serb and Muslim lines before the parents killed each other. Milan explains how his father, half Serb and half Muslim, had summed up the situation, back when there was still hope of clinging to peace: " 'My left arm must fight my right arm. How do I make dolls, how do I eat?' He tells this to the Imam, he tells this to the priest. They say 'no one wants dolls now.' "
Milan, still only 17, has fallen on the Serb side of the battle line, and does not know how to explain to his sister why she can no longer play with her Muslim friends. The Muslims hide out in the mosque and throw dirt at her. The Serbs take to the forest. All are armed; all are orphans. It's only a matter of time before they imitate their parents. "Like they were playing a game of 'all fall down,' " Sylvie later says.
Back in the present day, Sylvie is numb and haunted, no longer the young idealist she used to be. Milan has shown her the true face of war, and she can hardly face the cost. She says to Milan, "I didn't think children could do that," to which he responds, "When the children bury their parents, they are no longer children." Sylvie grows further away from the black-and-white present of Peter and further into the gray world of Starajena (Kayla Prestel), the mythical old woman who comes for the dead.
DeLuca's Sylvie is excellent. She's very sympathetic, even when a little bit clueless, with the dangerously charismatic Hynes. They have an immediate, if cautious, connection, and the pair works quite well together. Hynes himself creates a very memorable character in Milan. He wears a grin that is somehow bold and sheepish at the same time; he's still a little bit a child, still a little bit too pleased with himself. He has a lot of lovable, childish energy but at the same time is able to navigate the more serious moments of the play with appropriate gravity. DeLuca is a very giving scene partner here, drawing the audience into this charming and frightening character.
DeLuca also works quite well with Andrews. They play a very serious game with high stakes, and their scenes together are extremely tense, though not without humor. With all the moral ambiguity and big questions brought up in the play, there's a danger in these two being talking heads, but they're not; they've very realistic people whose very different lives have brought them into bitter conflict. DeLuca and Andrews, with the help of Sean Christopher Lewis' direction, have done an excellent job of realizing Fawcett's script in these scenes.
Dorothy Jolly is lovely as the fragile and imaginative Lejla. She doesn't speak any English, so everything she says must be translated by Milan, or left for the audience to guess at, but her physical presence is incredible and she adds a desperate energy to the piece every time she is on stage. While it is clear that she is in grave danger -- she is lost in fantasy and has only a stuffed dog for protection -- her presence creates a warm center to the play. She embodies the lost innocence that no one else is allowed to cling to.
Kayla Prestel strikes a foreboding presence without saying a word; completely shrouded, she crosses the stage to collect the souls of the dead. She has a real connection to DeLuca in these scenes, and they do a lot of storytelling with their physical work here.
The scenic design (by Shawn Ketchum Johnson) as well as the sound and light (by Sean Christopher Lewis and Courtney Schmitz Watson, respectively) create a very evocative atmosphere for this story. The set is made primarily of glass panels, and is open enough to create a great flexibility of playing areas. With the help of the light rig, the place can be an office, a tent in a war zone, a picturesque forest, or an abstract memory realm. The dolls strewn about the stage are an excellent symbol of the fragile innocence of the Bosnian children. The sound creates a real feeling of dread that cements the atmosphere of the play together quite well.
Fawcett's writing is perfect for the subject matter; she's not afraid to ask the hard questions about what this all means. It's very difficult to take sides; even as we dislike Peter for pointing out all the missteps the protagonist made, we can't help concede his points are valid. It's equally difficult to square Sylvie's reckless idealism with the grim realities of Milan's situation. Fawcett crafts this story in an emotionally evocative way, and while the violence described is graphic and gruesome when it needs to be, she speaks volumes with what she does not say, using subtle foreshadowing and wry irony to paint a larger picture.
Lewis' direction keeps the story moving at a steady and dramatic pace. He also makes excellent use of the scenic elements at his disposal, and the cast plays a very grim story in an almost fantastic environment. The final tableau is as incredibly imaginative as it is heartbreaking.
Toymaker's War is a testament to the imaginations of these theatre artists. The story is grand in theme but uncompromisingly personalized. This show runs just one weekend in Iowa City before going on tour; you don't want to miss this gripping story told from the heart.
Toymaker's War runs from February 23rd to February 26th. More information here.