Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: “Honey-Brown Eyes” a drama in two Bosnian kitchens explores the human side of war, at SF Playouse through November 5, 2011

In Stefanie Zadravec’s “Honey Brown Eyes” which opens SF Playhouse’s fall season, Nic Grelli (Dragan) is a young Serbian solider embroiled in the Bosnian War who interrogates Jennifer Stuckert (Alma, a Croat Muslim) in her Višegrad apartment. She recognizes him from the days when he performed in a Balkans rock band with her younger brother. Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

In 2009, Stefanie Zadravec won the Helen Hayes Award for Honey Brown Eyes, a quietly terrifying drama set in Bosnia during the war in the early 1990’s.  This remarkable play opened SF Playhouse’s fall season last Saturday and is a perfect fit for this jewel of a company that keeps delivering one riveting drama after another. Honey Brown Eyes how humans behave in war and the reverberating mess war leaves in its wake.  The Bosnian War certainly left us in West with terrifying vision of a troubled land where brutality beats out justice.   That war, which resulted from the break-up of Yugoslavia, involved Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats, all fighting over land and attempting to settle ancient scores.  It entailed intimidation, forced expulsion and/or killing of the Bosniak population by Serb forces, and the mass rape of an estimated 50,000 women.  All the drama in Honey Brown Eyes takes place against this backdrop but occurs entirely in two small kitchens representing opposite sides of the war —one in Višegrad owned by Alma (Jennifer Stuckert), a Muslim Croat and the other in Sarajevo, owned by Zovanka (Wanda McCaddon) a Serb.  The stories are connected because, before the war, Alma’s brother, Denis (Chad Deverman), and Zovanka’s grandson, Dragan (Nic Grelli), were bandmates in a popular punk rock band that imploded because its egoistic guitar players couldn’t get along.  Director Bill English’s clever staging has both kitchen dramas occurring on essentially the same Balkan kitchen set strengthening the plot connection.   Director Susi Damilano keeps the action fast-paced and emotionally-charged, presenting characters who manage to rise above their ethnicities to find courage and hope in the chaos of war.   Is it realistic?  Zadrevec would like us to think so because only in examining our very basic assumptions about human nature and behavior does the possibility for change exist.  

In Act I, Dragan, a heavily-armed young Serb soldier, shows up at Alma’s apartment in Višegrad to intimidate and evacuate her.  He’s got a complete list of residents and is also looking for her young daughter.  Jennifer Stuckert delivers a masterful Alma, physically and emotionally exhausted, but compassionate with a strong inner core.  She relates to Dragan with kindness, offering coffee and denying repeatedly that she has a daughter.  Other than to propel the drama, it is never made clear why Alma has remained in her apartment, almost courting rape and death, and not fled.  Grelli’s edgy and amped-up performance as childish, adolescent, and adult Dragan, all rolled into one, perfectly exemplify the faces of this war.  As he butts Alma with his rifle and sends her to the floor writhing in pain, he proceeds to threaten her with torture, rape and death—and then is distracted by a small battery-operated television playing an American sit-com that he gloms onto like a six-year-old.  Through nervous conversation, they discover that Denis used to be a rocker in the same band as Alma’s brother and that war-weathered Alma is actually “honey brown eyes,” the hottie who, several years ago, inspired a song by that name and was the source of Dragan’s obsessive teen love.  That revelation changes their dynamic, adding new pressures to Dragan’s in-humane assignment and giving Alma what appears to be some leverage. 

After brutalizing the young Muslim woman, Alma, a frenzied Nic Grelli (as Dragan) plays Air Guitar in her apartment while waiting for his troops to return to take her to almost certain death in a detention camp. In each of “Honey Brown Eyes’” two acts, the characters talk about their lives and hopes — and the music — they once had and loved. Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

In Act II, Denis, a bedraggled Croat resistance fighter—and Alma’s estranged brother—shows up at elderly Zovanka’s apartment in downtown Sarajevo seeking a place to hide from the Serbs who are out hunting for him.  Zovanka (Wanda McCaddon) proves to be one amazingly vital, wise and funny woman, offering a strong and compassionate counterpoint to the brut Serbs of Act I.  Once she determines she that Denis isn’t going to kill her, she whips up soup from her only onion and offers him some fresh clothing.   Over a bottle of wine, they booth loosen up and he confides that he deserted his troops because he couldn’t stomach killing.  A hauntingly real intimacy develops between these two supposed enemies and they somehow make a silent pact that speaks volumes about the humanity of individuals in the largeness of war. 

Zadravec, who is of Slovenian descent, doesn’t concern herself too much with the specifics of the Bosnian ethnic conflict.  She instead opts to explore much larger questions the nature of relationships, love and compassion, loyalty and what unequal power does to them.  Impressively, Honey Brown Eyes probes several grey areas of human behaviour without ever diminishing the harrowing experiences of war on all involved.  What stands out is the characters’ internal battles to maintain their dignity, humanity and sanity against impossible odds.  Presented and acted with compassion and honesty, the powerful play will leave its mark.

Honey Brown Eyes:  Cast in order of appearance:  Jennifer Stuckert is Alma, Nic Grelli is Dragan, Cooper Carson is Branko/Milenko, Madeleine Pauker is Zlata (rotating), Chad Deverman is Denis, Wanda McCaddon is Zovanka, Daniel Mitchell is the radio announcer.

Susi Damliano is the producing director; Bill English is the set designer/artistic director; Kurt Landisman is the lighting manager; Brenden Aanes is the sound designer; Miyuki Bierlein is the costume designer

Details:  SF Playhouse is located at 533 Sutter Street (one block off Union Square, between Powell and Mason Streets).  Performances are Tues/Wed/Thurs. 7 p.m., Friday & Saturday 8 p.m., plus Saturdays at 3 p.m. 

Information and tickets ($20 to $50): or phone SF Playhouse box office 415.677.9596. 

When Alma’s brother, Chad Deverman (Denis), a frightened resistance fighter, shows up at Wanda McCaddon’s (Jovanka’s) Sarajevo apartment during a blackout, she thinks he’s going to kill her. The two soon discover that they share a lot in common and decide to trust each other. Stefanie Zadravec’s “Honey Brown Eyes” plays through November 5, 2011 at SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

Keen for more Balkan drama?

The 34th Mill Valley Film Festival opens this Thursday, October 6, 2011, and is presenting two films with high Balkan intensity:

The Forgiveness of Blood: A powerful drama from the producer of Maria Full of Grace (2004)shot entirely on location in Albania that explores that small Balkan country’s insular clan culture through the story of a teenage boy and his sister.  When a land-rights argument between two rural Albanian families escalates to a fatality, legal justice takes a backseat to the 15th century Balkan oral code of the Kanun, or traditional Albanian law.  Its arcane customs leave Nic (Tristan Halilaj), a 17-year-old Albanian high-schooler who leads a modern life of texting, video games and flirting, a stir-crazy prisoner in his family’s home and vulnerable to revenge by the wronged clan should he step outside his home.  Nic’s resourceful 15-year-old sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), takes over her family’s bread delivery business but is soon knee deep in threats herself.   As Nic feels increasing pressure to find a solution to this blood feud, his actions escalate such that his entire family is jeopardized.  In Albanian with English subtitles, the film boldly contrasts the resurgence of antiquated traditions with the lives of young people in the country’s first post-totalitarian generation, whose bright future is put at risk by these practices.  Directed by Joshua Marston (2011) (109 minutes)   Screens: Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 4 p.m. and Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 12:15 p.m. at Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley.   Tickets: $13.50.

Coriolanus:  Actor Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s war tragedy “Coriolanus” set in war-torn Bosnia with chilling urban battle scenes. Fiennes will also star as the powerful general Caius Martius, or Coriolanus, a powerful general at odds with the City of Rome, a role that Fiennes played on the London stage.  Coriolanus is a rivetting drama about the relationship of authority, power, and the emotions that drive them and should play well reconfigured in the hotbed of the Balkans.  Martius meets his old enemy Tullus Aufidius (a very macho Gerard Butler) on the battlefield and returns to Rome as a hero.  Reveling in his triumph, he is elected to the governing consul but is soon opposed by the citizenry.  His anger at the public’s disfavor leads to his expulsion, and in desperation he turns to his sworn enemy Tullus, with whom he takes revenge on the city.  Vanessa Redgrave is Coriolanus’s iron-willed mother and Jessica Chastain is his trophy wife.  Directed by Ralph Fiennes (2010). (122 minutes)   Screens: Friday, October 7, 2011 at 9 p.m. at Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley and Saturday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA.  Tickets: $13.50.

October 4, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment