Last weekend's earthquake in Nepal brought some glancing international attention to the remote Himalayan nation — especially when a wall at the British embassy in Kathmandu collapsed and killed three Nepalese citizens, setting off protests. But then, as Danish playwright Astrid Saalbach's "Red and Green" suggests, seemingly well-meaning outsiders have been riding the seismic rifts in Nepal (and other troubled regions) for decades, with more than a few natives left buried in their wake.
Saalbach's astringent yet discursive piece is now in its U.S. premiere (translated by Michael Evans) with the newly formed Akvavit Theatre, whose mission focuses on contemporary Nordic playwrights. It casts a jaundiced eye at the efforts of a quartet of Danish aid workers caught up in the Nepalese civil war of 1996-2006. The jumbled chronology of the story reflects the chaos in which they find themselves — a mix between jet lag, altitude sickness and sheer culture shock. (The program provides a guide to the mixed-up order, but you'll want to pay close attention.)
At one level, Saalbach's play, smartly directed by Chad Eric Bergman, seems to fall into the trap of so many plays about the Third World — placing the white, wealthy expatriate characters front and center behind walled enclaves, while denying a voice to the citizens who have to contend with the harsh conditions. Ramona Kywe and Odie Escondo play the "Others" — maids, children, and drivers who silently suffer both the self-dramatizing excesses of their employers and the most severe consequences of the war.
In Saalbach's world, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play the same power games that multinational corporations do — jockeying for position while ignoring uncomfortable truths. (In a possible nod to Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," a subplot involves arsenic in the drinking water at a remote Nepalese school.)
Manne (the suitably vulpine Wm Bullion), the administrator of the aid organization, is mostly interested in playing tennis — even after witnessing a sniper attack — and seducing his underlings, male and female alike. His wife, Lilli (Mary Jo Bolduc), is a former chemical engineer whose own jumbled memory, the aftermath of a stroke, reflects the cultural amnesia of the First World when it comes to poorer nations. Petra (Breahan Eve Pautsch) is the firebrand whose seeming fearlessness in the field turns out to be just another brand of narcissism, Morten (Matthew Isler) is the go-along-to-get-along striver whose wife and children leave him, and Kristine (Kirstin Franklin) is the out-of-her-depth newcomer who must make the most horrific choice in the play.
The play frustrates our Western expectations for a linear narrative arc that makes tidy emotional sense. An occasionally shrill tone (Pautsch gets particularly histrionic in an early scene, to the point where she's hard to understand) also sets in. But you may well find, as I have, that images from this arid but pointed tale linger in your mind like a barely remembered nightmare.
Through Oct. 9 at Raven Theatre West Stage, 6157 N. Clark St.; $20 at 773-490-5865 or akvavittheatre.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun