Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Our man in Rwanda

Fedna Jacquet and Tory Bullock face the overwhelming ending of The Overwhelming.

You have to admire the good intentions of J.T. Rogers, who decided to pen a searing drama in response to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and his own clueless, but horrified, response to same.

But you don't have to admire his play.

Because The Overwhelming - now in a solid production from Company One at the BCA - is derivative as drama and contradictory as politics. And it's not hard to understand why. The play concerns an American academic family (Dad's researching a book) blundering into the Rwandan genocide equipped with little more than their own cultural assumptions and politically naïve good will - and that's pretty much all J.T. Rogers has brought to the party, too.

Indeed, the playwright has blatantly lifted his key plot points from Graham Greene (from The Third Man in particular), then tacked them onto his African mise-en-scène, cribbed together a half-baked domestic drama as counterpoint, and bound the two halves together with long spiels of political exposition. To be fair, the final scenes are indeed gripping - but generally, once people begin pulling out machetes, things get interesting all by themselves. And until then, The Overwhelming tends to be somewhat underwhelming.

True, Rogers's ongoing lesson plan does serve the purpose of enlightening us, the audience, regarding the Rwandan backstory. But how does it avail the play's characters? The author seems to want us to pin some sort of blame for the crisis on their ignorance - if only they'd understood all this, they might have done something to stop it, etc. But at the same time, his movie-thriller conventions depend on the unknowability of who's who and what's what; indeed, the dramatic action seems to imply something like a brief for the Clinton administration's indifference - since us ugly Americans can't understand the complexity of the bad blood between the Hutus and Tutsis, the play implies despite itself, it's best we not get involved at all.

These issues are of course only symptoms of a deeper, rather exasperating conceptual problem with the script: why, exactly, should a play about Rwanda take the form of a thriller about white people? This is the kind of assumption that Company One usually skewers, and it seems intuitively obvious that only an African could convincingly dramatize the dark heart of the Rwandan genocide. (And Wole Soyinka already has, at least at one remove; so why hasn't Company One produced him?) Okay, J.T. Rogers is no Wole Soyinka; still, even by Hollywood standards he offers a pretty thin and predictable pastiche, along with clunky chunks of symbolic dramaturgy that can't help but irritate: when Sonny loses his virginity, for instance, Dad simultaneously loses his innocence about the situation in Rwanda, too. (Somehow I think Junior got the better end of that deal.)

The Company One cast does what it can with this material, and director Shawn LaCount, if not actually drawing much subtlety from his players, keeps things moving at a crackling pace (on an evocative and smoothly functional set by Sean Cote). In the lead role of Jack Exley, local stalwart Doug Bowen-Flynn has his moments, but doesn't exactly chart a harrowing downward arc. The fresher faces in the cast by and large make a better impression; as Exley's new, African-American wife, Lindsay Allan Cox proves smartly poised, even if she doesn't nail her character's unconscious vanity (she styles herself a writer of "narratives of self"). As their troubled son (whose mother died not long ago - get the parallel?), Gabe Goodman is also appealing, but a bit generic (above left, Bowen-Flynn with Cox and Goodman). The young actor does develop a nice rapport, however, with newcomer Tory Bullock, who sports perhaps the easiest, most natural stage presence of anyone in the show (Bullock hasn't quite essayed his character's murderous underside, however). In the "Harry Lime" role, the eloquent Cedric Lilly likewise hasn't quite shaded in any of the troubling doubts the script forces on him; meanwhile Obehi Janice and Fedna Jacquet make strong impressions in simpler, shorter parts. In the end, you get the feeling most of these folks could overwhelm you, given an overwhelming play.

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