You Belong to Me
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 5, 2007
You Belong to Me is a theatrical meditation on war and its roots in human nature. It's comprised of three acts that each take place at a particular moment in the history of warfare: "Belongings" is set on a plantation in the American South at the end of the Civil War; "Heimwehen" (which Google translates as "home-sore") takes place in Germany on the last day of World War II in Europe; and "The Plague of Fantasies" is laid in the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany in the present day (this is the hospital where American soldiers seriously injured in Afghanistan and Iraq are sent). The International WOW Company and their collaborators Forum Freies Theater have devised these three segments in radically different styles, but the same theme recurs throughout: that there seems to be something hard-wired in human beings that makes us destroy one another: men brutally rape women and savagely kill other men; whites enslave and lynch blacks; Germans imprison and gas Jews. The cycle repeats; is decried but never prevented.
At about 2-3/4 hours in length, You Belong to Me is probably longer than it needs to be, especially because its main ideas are mostly restated and/or amplified as it progresses; few new concepts are introduced. What makes it worthwhile viewing is its artistry, the work of the dazzling imagination of conceiver/director Josh Fox, who has for years been demonstrating his singular vision of how theatre can be immediate, eclectic, enlarging, and accessible. With a corps of talented collaborators, he has created in You Belong to Me a work filled with striking, evocative, and sometimes very beautiful stage pictures, all organized around this thesis of war's capacity to destroy our humanity.
I'll offer a few examples to give you a sense of what's attempted and achieved in this ambitious work. In the Civil War segment, two Southern white men fight over "ownership" of a slave whom they repeatedly rape, and then they fight over the paternity of her child. This is presented magnetically and vividly through understated movement bordering on dance. The only accompaniment is music from a variety of sources (Jimmy Rodgers to John Cage), delivered a cappella by two remarkable singing actresses, Elizabeth Knauer and Beth Griffith.
"Heimwehen" is performed almost entirely in German with English supertitles (a wonderful idea), in presentational styles that sometimes suggest Brecht and other times suggest the European surrealists; it includes a gloriously edgy, giddy dance sequence featuring live choreography to a period soundtrack mashup (Astaire, early Warner Brothers movie musicals, that sort of thing).
The final act begins with an American G.I. suffering from what we can euphemistically called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, undergoing an interview about his condition with a particularly cold-hearted administrator. There's a moment when we see—and he sees—a giant polar bear cross in front of him, and for a moment we're with him, in his addled and disturbed hallucination. Then, when a similarly out-of-place tiger wanders on, we find ourselves squarely in the G.I.'s tormented reality.
As these examples suggest, You Belong to Me is a panorama, or carnival, of theatrical sights and sounds, all spinning around a set of central ideas. I think that each audience member's reaction to what s/he experiences here will be very particular, as certain sensory images and suggestions resonate differently for each of us. The cumulative effect is a kind of immersion in the play's thesis. Whether that will lead to overload or catharsis is not for me to say; but I don't think you can leave this piece feeling indifferent to it, and that's absolutely part of the point.
I've already told you about the two extraordinary singers in this piece; their castmates are equally masterful. Okwui Okpokwasili shines particularly in the first segment, as the slave woman who is also Act I's de facto narrator; she plays this role with splendid economy, communicating vividly with a mere change of expression or turn of the head. Beau Allulli, Robert Saietta, and Rory Sheridan portray the marauders/soldiers in all three acts, among other roles; their concentration and commitment are outstanding. And Sheridan demonstrates some very fleet footwork in the musical sequence of Act II.
Irene Christ and Angelika Sautter share the spotlight in Act II, as, respectively, a wealthy German woman whose husband, brother and lover have killed themselves and her maid; they pull off the surreal trappings of this section of the play with grand panache. Rounding out the company are Carrie Getman and Harold Kennedy German who play oppressor and oppressed in Acts I and III (he a slave and then the disturbed G.I., she a Southern Belle and then the G.I.'s sweetheart, whom he fantasizes clothing in a burka).
Fox's behind-the-scenes collaborators for this enormous project include dramaturg Frank M. Raddatz, lighting designers Charles Foster and Scott Needham, composer Andy Gillis, and costume and set designers Judith Kästner, Julien Renard, Tara Shamskho, and Petra Maria Wirth.
You Belong to Me may not ultimately have much new to tell us about the human condition, but by taking us on a highly theatrical and hugely compelling tour through these three wars, it's a potent reminder of a cycle of destruction that humankind has so far been unable to halt.