nytheatre.com review by Heather J. Violanti
June 12, 2010
"He who controls the records controls the power," observes a character in War Crimes, Sergei Burbank's provocative new play, now running at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. The urge to reshape history in one's own image—and seek revenge on those who oppose—propels this chilling, dystopian drama, set "a few years from now." Together, Burbank and the Conflict of Interest Theatre Company create a vision of the near future that confounds as much as it disturbs. No one is innocent, but what they're guilty of is not always clear, either. In the end, War Crimes does not move as it might, but it still unsettles.
War Crimes posits what would happen if, in the near future, America is so consumed by fear, it turns against itself—and the world. Of course, this has already happened many times, as the mysterious Pieter Schaghen points out, stepping onstage from the front row. Though Pieter looks like just another businessman in his crisp white suit, he's actually a ghost, the spirit of a dead merchant from Dutch New Amsterdam. Now Pieter haunts the prisoners of the Hague, where he once sent reports on New Amsterdam's progress. And he haunts us, lecturing to the audience on how history is doomed to repeat itself.
In the play, America is in freefall. After a failed bombing attempt on the New York Stock Exchange, President Joseph Adamson declared a nationwide state of emergency and set up an internment camp on Randall's Island, shocking the world. John Warder, a retired math teacher and Desert Storm veteran, was one of the camp's interrogators; Salha, a young Muslim woman, was one of the detainees. Now the President is on trial at the Hague for war crimes. John and Salha are witnesses, but nothing goes as planned. Everyone is as guilty of some crime as they are innocent of another.
We learn this piecemeal, mostly from recorded testimony played on a giant screen that dominates the space. Scenes jump from live action to taped interviews, and sometimes live speech plays simultaneously over the recorded testimony. Characters watch each other and eavesdrop on conversations from across the stage and join the audience, sitting in the front row to observe the action.
Director Sara Wolkowitz orchestrates fluid transitions between scenes, and between video and live action. The pace drags slightly at the end when the writing becomes its most confused. The ensemble gives committed, if not always precise, performances. David Nelson is a wry, if not quite menacing Pieter, while as President Adamson, Hugh Sinclair just ever-so-slightly evokes George H.W. Bush. Timothy Roselle brings a startling gentleness if slight sameness to John Warder, while Sarah Hartmann slowly implodes as his long-suffering wife, Martha. Alexis MacDonald is a grave Pascal, the solicitor reluctantly appointed as the President's defense, while Laura Piquado makes a coolly scheming Thomasina More, the Hague judge who wants the President's trial to put her in the history books.
War Crimes is non-linear, moving in circles, turning in on itself, then out again. It makes us work hard to discern its mysteries; it resists predictability. There are glimmers of clarity, as when Martha, declaims her loneliness, confessing she bought a twin bed when she suspected John would not return from the Hague. More often than not, everything seems so ambiguous as to be remote. It's hard to feel empathy, or anger, or indignant, for characters who remain just beyond reach. War Crimes bristles with engaging ideas and complex characters, but they don't coagulate into something visceral. The central conflict remains unclear...is this about the fall of an American President? The decline of an everyman who's not as uncomplicated as he seems? The desperate ends to which people will go for lasting fame? The double-edged sword of revenge? We're left wanting more, but more of what?