Bellona, Destroyer of Cities
nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
April 10, 2010
Bellona, Destroyer of Cities is the kind of work that invites conversation and inspires a second viewing (despite its sold-out, regrettably short run). "Bellona" is the Roman goddess of war; it is also the name of the smoldering, post-apocalyptic city in which the play is set. Adapted by Jay Scheib (also the director and media designer) from Samuel R. Delaney's cult science fiction novel Dhalgren, the production draws us into a dark landscape of uncertainty.
Bellona is a city of plentiful stimulants but meager food, a place of random violence and frenzied, sudden couplings between strangers. The only news available is sensationalist, pornographic. Everything is falling apart; smoke "indicates fire, but obscures the source."
The action kicks off with rapid-fire absurdist scenes: actions repeat themselves, dialogue teeters between insight and nonsense, two moons rise. Characters suddenly speak lines into microphones for emphasis (as if in a talk show, or a poetry reading, a fantastic effect) and cameras project close-ups of the actors on a large screen when they are in places otherwise obscured on stage. A little television on the floor shows only a constant movement down railroad tracks. The understated, ominous sound design (by Catherine McCurry) adds to the David Lynch atmosphere. It's an approach that a 21st century audience can get comfortable with—the use of technology is seamless and leads to new methods of truth-telling. The politics of race (white America's appropriation of black culture, the sexual objectification of the black man), for example, gets a refreshing treatment that would not be possible in a straightforward, expository drama.
Scenes of an anarchic group of youth who drink, hook up, and fight in the park contrast with interior scenes of the nuclear, sitcom family taken to an extreme neurotic pitch. Our guide through the city is Kid (Sarita Choudhury), a shell-shocked, amnesiac poet who reacts with the same unflappable (and somehow charming) detachment to aggression, job offers, lies, affection, threats, and praise.
With the excellent ensemble cast largely made up of young, beautiful creatures, the atmosphere is not the expected "might is right" post-apocalypse scenario of the popular imagination. The actors instead infuse an orphaned air into their engagement with each other. Yes, aggression threatens at every moment—they tear their clothes off, jump on each other, admire each other, rattle off verbal paradoxes—rape and assault loom, yet this is not from an innate evil it seems, but rather from a blank ignorance of basic human values. The brief calls for ethical reflection are spoken as if in a foreign language, by characters constantly surrounded by the sound of gunshots of suicide or assassination. There is a palpable lack of history and a sense that the true decay lies with the previous, generally absent generation.
Without the novel's luxuries of meandering, digressing, circling, the play must choose a trajectory. The attempt to peak the action with the deaths of two characters is a surprising choice and the pacing stumbles with this emotional turn, particularly given Scheib's description of the city as "caught forever in a terrible loop." It is hard to take seriously a mother's mourning in this world, the young crew's concern at the death of "the activist" when so much violence, blood, and noise have been dispensed with such flippancy.
In the end, however, Scheib does not take any easy way out. The initial frenzied encounters seemed destined to play out again; even our trust in Kid is undermined—has she been playing us along with everyone else? What role does language (whether poetry or "the news") play in abetting, resisting, or transforming? These are a couple of the many questions that remain at the play's close about characters, choices, plot points—questions that uncover the richness of the work and open up a discussion full of alternative takes.