nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
August 12, 2007
If you're familiar with writer Steven Fechter's play-turned-movie The Woodsman, about a pedophile's release from prison, chances are you have a good handle on what sticks in his craw: sexuality, violence, and issues of power. His new play, The Commission, having its world premiere mounted by Dreamscape Theater Company as part of the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival, finds all of those issues still strongly on Fechter's mind and finds its audience still unable to look away from all the horror he brings to the stage.
The Commission takes place in an unnamed foreign country, recently done with a civil war. The scenes move backward in time and we see how tightly connected this seemingly disparate group of characters really are. The play is about relationships, as much as anything, and it hinges on the story of Ivan (Zack Calhoon), a young soldier, and his love Tulia; and the affair between Karl, an investigator for the War Crimes Commission (hence, The Commission), and the American ex-pat, Paula. People do horrible things during times of war and Fechter zeroes in on sexual atrocities and the way the perpetrator's guilt can linger, poisoning his life well after the crime was committed.
It's easy to appreciate The Commission from a technical point of view. Fechter's scenes start off innocently enough, but he soon gets the ball rolling, continually escalating the conflict and showing the flip-flop of power between the characters. This creates engaging tension and it is genuinely fun to see how each character will try to take power back from the other. On a more emotional level, though, the play struggles. Fechter's characters are emotionally walled off—and reasonably so, given all the horror they've experienced during the war. Dramatically, there is something very compelling seeing characters who desperately need to keep those walls up, but the walls are so well constructed that, too often, they keep the audience out as well.
Dreamscape Theater Company does a fine job serving the starkness that resonates through the play. The director, Sarah Gurfield, creates an almost somber march through the story. The set, designed by Nick Francone, consists of a number of flats topped with razor wire that are used to frame everything from the interior of a café to a blockaded road and is pitch-perfect for this show. Both Reyna de Courcy as Tulia and Susan Ferrara as Paula give bright performances, and Ferrara in particular gives life to a woman who trudges through the heartbreaking life she has chosen for herself. Patrick Melville has moments of eerie fun playing the manipulative Karl.
One thing that uproots this play that needn't be abstract is the choice not to have all the characters who are natives of this country speaking with an accent. Courcy uses an Eastern European accent, Melville uses what sounds like a light Russian accent, while Calhoon and Al Choy (as Tulia's father, Boba) speak without an accent. While this does serve to connect, in the audience's mind, Calhoon's Ivan to U.S. soldiers currently experiencing war, it seems misplaced for this show and muddies the experience of watching what would otherwise be a very clear play.