The eloquent Devil on All Sides searches for life during wartime
Youthful innocence and stupidity can generally be relied on in making soldiers and war; those lacking such qualities may have to be beaten and intimidated into service. The process inspires some vivid imagery in French playwright Fabrice Melquiot's The Devil on All Sides (Le Diable en Partage), a poetical mix of fantasy and harsh reality set amid the 1992–95 Bosnian war. Here the consummate soldier is, in one instance, literally the deconstructed man: reduced piece by piece, beginning with his eyes. But then, as the play unfolds, staying together — as individuals, lovers, families, or neighbors — becomes the supreme psychic and physical challenge in a state of war.
The central characters, Lorko (Rod Hipskind) and Elma (Nora el Samahy), are lovers separated by the conflict. Lorko — a Serbian Christian who courts and marries Elma, a Bosnian Muslim, before the war — finds himself viciously pressed into the militia when battle erupts. Despite his initial acquiescence in rabid nationalism and ethnic hatred, he soon abandons the front lines. Moving westward across Europe, he remains haunted by Elma and the family he's left behind, who show up in his waking dreams. "No one is sleeping in this world," he notes — echoing the poet for whom he was named (indeed, the play as a whole draws significantly on the imagery in Federico Garc??a Lorca's "City That Does Not Sleep").
Meanwhile, Elma remains with her disintegrating in-laws in their disintegrating home, in a disintegrating country, her presence strongly associated with the garden she tends and the singing she loves. Being both family and Muslim, she acts as both buffer from and incitement to the rage and madness unleashed by the war around the dinner table: Lorko's mother (Deb??rah Eliezer) knitting feverishly to plug the holes in the walls, sweet younger brother Jovan (Brian Livingston) succumbing to sadism, friend Alexander (Ryan O'Donnell) another enthusiastic soldier gradually whittled away, Lorko's gentle, mentally unraveling father (Michael Sommers) occupied with writing down all the details of life "as it was."
The US premiere of Devil, a recent popular and critical sensation in France, is an impressive achievement for foolsFURY (in association with Alliance Française), beginning with artistic director Ben Yalom's lively, eloquent translation and imaginative staging (the latter marred only by some action set too low at the front of the stage). The cast, led by strong performances from el Samahy and Hipskind, gracefully embodies the shifting tones in Melquiot's darkly humorous, grim, fanciful, and melancholic poetry. Its tangled field of beauty and horror meanwhile is admirably reflected in scenic designer Dan Stratton's battlefield home, Christopher Studley's moon-bathed, spectral lighting, and the contrasts between sounds and silences in Patrick Kaliski's excellent aural landscape of music and mayhem (original score by Dan Cantrell). Here, Lorko's crumbling family home sits amid a concrete and steel graveyard where still a rebel flower may bloom.
"Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you will find the real tinsel underneath," Oscar Levant once famously quipped. He certainly had the personality and career to understand the truth in that line, or the real tinsel underneath it. But as John Fisher's new play shows, Hollywood in the 1940s did have a surface to scratch — witness the otherwise unlikely encounter between Levant and Arnold Schönberg, the latter a part of Los Angeles's community of German Jewish émigré artists and intellectuals on the run from Hitler.
Fisher, who skillfully plays the title role as well as directs, sets this real-life encounter between the formidable modernist composer and the Broadway-Hollywood composer-actor-pianist and mordant wit (played with coolly neurotic panache by Matthew Martin) against a present-day story of rattled sexual identities. As the play gets under way, a frustrated history professor named John (Matt Weimer), in a state of midlife crisis, breaks off his long-term relationship with his lover, Chris (Michael Vega), to start an affair with his best friend, Ash (Stefanie Goldstein), breaking up her long-term relationship to Jane (Maryssa Wanlass) in the process.
The resulting "emancipation of dissonance" brings forward a number of themes, as these overlapping attempts at reordering spark, chafe, and fly apart again in a state of ghostly proximity to one another. The scenes between the hip but nervous, pill-popping Oscar (a dedicated hypochondriac and phobic) and the imposing but dryly humorous Schönberg are especially riveting, serving, among many other things, to measure the tension between the incessant commodification of culture and some notion of pure art. The John and Ash affair, while well acted, seems less developed. Even given a certain fuzziness, however, it's a completely worthwhile evening, suggesting that the fault lines running beneath Los Angeles are many and varied. As Levant once wrote, in a line that could speak for his culture, "I am, as I've told everyone, deeply superficial." SFBG
THE DEVIL ON ALL SIDES
Through May 27
Thurs.–<\d>Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.
Traveling Jewish Theatre
470 Florida, SF
$12–<\d>$30 (Thurs., pay what you can)
Through May 20
Wed.–<\d>Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
2926 16th St., SF