If a play about victims of appalling sexual violence sounds like an unlikely subject for a comedy, that’s because comedy is so rarely used in a transformative capacity anymore. Nottage, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2007 and a Pulitzer Prize for Ruined in 2009, pulls poetry out of brutality and humor out of tragedy. Without its hopeful, even joyful spirit, Ruined would be too harrowing, alienating you before you fully engage with the story. Instead, characters such as Josephine (Jamairais Malone), a combative, outrageous prostitute, provide entertainment and comic relief.
Nottage doesn’t go in for the Brechtian distancing technique used to remind an audience it’s watching fiction. Her characters are impossible not to believe, and she accepts the fact that pathos and empathy are a huge part of the play’s power. But Randolph-Wright’s production does employ a very Brechtian technique to disturbing effect—juxtaposing tragedy with exuberant and celebratory live music. Listening to musicians play upbeat African songs at the brothel is distinctly unsettling when you’re watching women shuffle around in fear, edgily eyeing men as they handle the very bayonets that have wounded them.
What ultimately defines this production, and in turn makes it so powerful, is the stellar performances. Jenny Jules—who won the 2011 Critics Circle Award for her portrayal of Mama Nadi at London’s Almeida Theatre—is an unstoppable, enigmatic lead, making Mama as cruel as she is kind, and beguilingly charming in her obstreperousness. Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Rachael Holmes deliver heartbreaking performances as two victims of unspeakable violence: One of Grays’s monologues recalling her attack left many in the audience weeping, while Sophie’s uncomfortable shuffle is a permanent visual reminder of her injuries. The actors playing soldiers—notably Babatunde Olusanmokun as Commander Osembenga and Clifton Duncan as Jerome Kisembe, a rebel leader—embody the kind of sadistic menace that obliges you to question the nature of humanity.
Alexander V. Nichol’s inventive staging in Arena’s in-the-round Fichandler Theatre provides just enough context to complement the actors without distracting from them, and ESosa’s costumes are a visual treat, expressing the tightly controlled but gorgeous personality of Mama and the wanton absurdity of Josephine.
This is a heartbreaking and powerful play, and its effects linger long after the actors leave the stage. But as a reminder of the power of resilience, it’s uplifting, and its message deserves to be heard.
Ruined is at Arena Stage through June 5; tickets ($55 and up) available at Arena Stage’s Web site.
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