Thursday, February 5, 2009

Not Quite Ruined

Ruined, now in previews at NY City Center Stage I, features a moving story, an effective, sometimes brilliant cast and a desperate need for a tyrannical producer who will impose some discipline on a play that is too long by at least 30% and adjust the thermostat down from a setting that strives to convince the audience it really is in the Congo. Ruined is the story of a band of sisters, victimized by brutal rape in the Congo's ongoing war, gathered by the irascible Mama Nadi in the only B&B (that's brothel and bar) in a one-horse combat zone. Christian, a poetic travelling salesman who woos Mama ceaselessly, delivers Salima and Sophie, Mama's two newest employees. Each has an awful history, a reminder of the continuing nightmare going on in much of Africa, but this is a story, not a lecture. Salima, age 15, has been kidnapped and used as a sex slave by a rebel army for six months, then hurt most of all by her husband's rejection after she escaped. Sophie, 18, is educated, refined and damaged so badly by rape and assault that she can't work as a prostitute. She's a capable assistant who emerges as Mama's protege. Mama herself is the main attraction. Mama talks a tough game as an apolitical mercenary, hell bent on her own survival, controlling one little piece of a very chaotic world. Mama's history and mixed motives eventually emerge, thanks in part to Christian's persistent attentions.

The show expends much time on the painstaking, often redundant development of Sophie and Sulima then rushes into a final few minutes of furious action when Sulima's remorseful husband appears and Commander Osembenga (an "if you're not with me, then you're against me" kind of guy) threatens to wreak havoc on Mama's all customers welcome establishment.

Ruined is well worth seeing. Saidah Arrika Ekulona is particularly compelling as Mama Nadi. Live music from the costumed drummer and guitarist visible on the left stage front is highly effective. The bar/bedroom set works well through several rapid scene changes without requiring technical miracles. The regret here is that this could have been a great experience, the kind of exceptional night live theater produces when everything goes right. Ruined features interesting characters and a believable, emotional story set against a grinding slice of real life. Instead of enjoying greatness, the audience must fight through the slow pacing (and that Congolese heat) just to hang on for the finish. Even modest editing, just cutting the most obvious repetition, would help significantly.

No comments: