Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Once More With Feeling

September 14, 2010

Condola Rashad and Russell G. Jones Photo: Chris Bennion/Geffen Playhouse 2010

On the recommendation of my friend Jim, I went to the Geffen Playhouse on Sunday for one of the preview performances of Lynn Nottage’s Ruined. Yes, I had just seen the play not but a week ago in a superb production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. However, given that the Geffen has brought director Kate Whoriskey and virtually the entire cast of the play from its prior incarnations at Seattle’s Intiman Theater and the Manhattan Theater Club, I thought it might be worth another visit. It was. And to be honest, there’s something about seeing two different productions of a new(ish) play in such close temporal proximity to one another. Undoubtedly, Nottage’s powerful, if eager to please Pulitzer Prize winning work has enough depth to make it worth a second viewing in a short amount of time. But these two different versions brought out different subtleties in the work that I might not have appreciated with only the first viewing. Ruined still brought tears to my eyes here in L.A. and it continues to leave one almost beside oneself with the knowledge that this is the world we live in today. That Nottage’s characters experience such unthinkable violence and poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo at the same time our day-to-day lives proceed in their comparably trivial concerns is almost too much to absorb.

And while Whoriskey has a bit of a different take on Ruined compared to director Liesl Tommy and her excellent Ashland cast, this is no less of a production. Certainly the Geffen’s space and equipment are less generous than those in Ashland with its less constricted home for Mama Nadi’s bar in the New Theater. Whoriskey’s staging mines a different kind of dramatic tension. In Ashland I felt a constant sense of an unexpected catastrophe awaiting the characters at every turn, as if the differences between past and present were irrelevant and prior traumas were likely to recur at any moment. In the Geffen’s current production, the sense of time is more linear. The characters more clearly battle past demons, but the here-and-now is contested on terms not only of danger, but of family and love.

Whoiskey manages a much brisker pace shaving almost 15 minutes off of the OSF running time. This has the benefit of making the play seem much less indulgent in its brighter and warm-hearted moments. The performances from many of the cast are more reserved suggesting the work the characters have done to bury the unthinkable and go on living. These differences are felt most in the biggest roles. Portia plays Mama Nadi with a steadier keel and a little less steel. She is less removed in both age and attitude from the young women she supports including Condola Rashad's Sophie and Quincy Tyler Bernstine's Salima. Salima in Whoriskey and Bernstine's hands comes off as less angry and more mentally unstable, which makes some of her actions toward the end of the play more believable. Perhaps the most interesting performance for me here, though, was Russell G Jones’ Christian who anchors the action more directly in this version. Jones infuses Christian with a more global male consciousness suggesting some of Nottage's larger targets about the politics between men and women, even in a war zone. Ruined, despite its heart of gold, is an excellent play and the form it has taken at the Geffen Playhouse makes it highly recommended.

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