"The Word Progress on My Mother's Lips Doesn't Ring True" ****
In an essay in the Dec. 4 edition of the New York Times Magazine, Kenan Trebincevic, a Bosnian muslim who fled to the United States during the 1990s wars, recounts his recent visit to his homeland — and his encounter with the neighbor who stole furniture and clothing from Trebincevic's mother while the Serbian paramilitary swept his father and brother into concentration camps. "No one has forgotten," Trebincevic tells the now-elderly woman.
In Matei Visniec's stunning and searing "The Word Progress on My Mother's Lips Doesn't Ring True," now in its North American premiere with Trap Door Theatre, the lines between survivors, victims, and ghosts of a nameless Balkan war are impossible to draw with any kind of moral clarity. As directed by Visniec's fellow Romanian, Istvan Szabo K., it's a piece that unpeels and reveals itself bit by tantalizing bit, creating a series of poetic and nightmarish vignettes in which commonplace objects — broken plates, a white shirt — become stand-ins for those lost to war and genocide.
"There are 30 nationalities in the bowels of this earth," observes Kevin Cox's Vibko, a slain soldier whose spectral presence haunts his parents "But at least we all get along now." The search for Vibko's corpse in a mad forest of forgotten landmines and bones from past conflicts drives his father (Wladyslaw Byrdy) to become literally ensnared, like a Dadaist marionette, by a series of fishing lines, each connected to some object representing the detritus of war. His wife (Beata Pilch) lies motionless in a wheelbarrow of dirt, clutching her dead son's shirt. "In this country, a happy mother is a mother who knows where her child is buried," she observes — which serves the purposes of her entrepreneurial neighbor (Malcolm Callan), who has a suitcase full of skulls for sale.
Meantime, a voiceless young woman (Simina Contras) finds herself sold into apparent sexual slavery in a brothel, and a cruel border guard (John Kahara) taunts a group of returning refugees and forces them to kiss the ground and sing the bloodthirsty new national anthem.
The performances — including Nicole Wiesner as a crazed woman furiously riding a rocking horse and Antonio Brunetti as the cheery ghost of a German soldier — are in perfect synch with Visniec's fractured but taut language (Joyce Nettles did the translation). Szabo's staging leads us through this labyrinthine world of horrors — which offers the faintest glimmers of hope — with haunting images that twist like a knife into our own memories. Ovidiu Iloc's stark score (heavy on plucked strings), Christopher Kriz's evocative sound design, Richard Norwood's hallucinatory lighting and Mike Mroch's inventive set synch up beautifully to bring us into the bowels of this disorienting world.
Trap Door has long been the go-to venue in town for European avant-garde drama, but this production is the finest I've yet seen from these indispensable stalwarts of the storefront. It isn't afraid to be emotionally accessible — if you've been tempted to try one of their shows, make it this one. It's a play that one feels along the nerve endings rather than comprehending in a chronological/logical way. After all, whoever can make literal sense of the betrayals and losses of endless warfare?
Through Jan. 14 at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland Ave.; $20-$25 at 773-384-0494 or trapdoortheatre.com
Memory and competition also haunt Michael Hollinger's "Opus," now in its local premiere with Redtwist under Jason W. Gerace's direction. A string quartet hires a new violist — and the lone woman of the four — to replace Dorian (Paul Dunckel), a mentally ill colleague and former lover of first violinist Elliot (Michael Sherwin). Dorian's disappearance seems, disturbingly, not to affect the driven Elliot, who is obsessed with having the quartet perform Beethoven's challenging Opus 131 for an upcoming appearance at the Bush White House.
Hollinger's script reveals the tangled histories and artistic battles of the group through rehearsal scenes and brief monologues where the quartet's original members share their insights on life as one-among-four with a documentary filmmaker. "It's like a marriage, only with more fidelity," observes second violinist Alan (John Ferrick) early on — and unsurprisingly, he ends up divorced. Carl (Brian Parry), the seemingly centered cellist, has his own struggles with a cancer diagnosis. And Grace (Emily Tate) feels conflicted about the man she's replaced, even as his rare 17th-century instrument now comes to life under her nimble fingers. (As a one-time violist myself, I appreciated the sprinkling of jokes Hollinger provides about the Rodney Dangerfield of stringed instruments.)
Hollinger's examination of technique versus passion in the creation of great music feels a bit self-conscious, but the performances have an easy, lived-in quality. They may not, as the group's mentor once told them, sound like "four instruments played with one bow," but they create a sufficiently engaging portrait of artistic collaboration and competition, and the peripatetic Christopher Kriz's sound design adds layers of aural pleasure.
Through Jan. 15 at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.; $25-$30 at 773-728-7529 or redtwist.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun