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

In Zayd Dohrn’s “Reborning” at SF Playhouse, an artist creates life-like infant dolls that serve as a form of therapy for her select clients, May 9- June 11, 2011

Lorri Holt, Baby Eva & Lauren English in Zay Dohrn's "Reborning" which has its world premiere at SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Cleaning up the unfinished business of the emotional past  is the theme of Zayd Dohrn’s engrossing play Reborning which had its world premiere Saturday at SF Playhouse.   This brilliantly acted drama takes an unsettling look at wounding from childhood and mothering experiences that can linger and enmesh adults in sadness, anxiety, obsession, and addiction.  Reborning also exposes the audience to a very unconventional healing path.   Continuing on a season that has offered one  provocative performance after another, Susi Damilano and Bill English, who run SF Playhouse, have found an exceptional talent in Zayd Dohrn.  Dohrn, the son of former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, has won the respect of audiences and critics all over for his plays, several of which  harken back to issues in childhood.

Reborning is the story of Kelly (Lauren English), a twenty something artist whose “Little Angels Nursery” fabricates custom made infant dolls for clients who have lost a child or have a need for a replica of a child and of Emily, her client who commissions a custom doll.  The play unfolds on multiple levels as it explores the fascinating and obscure real-world reborning phenomenon which most of us probably have no idea even exists. Grossly simplified, reborning is an attempt to recreate and relive the past.  Artists fabricate unbelievably lifelike human infant dolls that fill certain psychological needs for them and for the clients who buy them.  Clients commission custom-made dolls or “adopt” already created baby dolls.  They then live with and care for them as they would real infants.

In Zayd Dohrn's "reborning" which has its worldpremiere at SF Playhouse, Lauren English plays Kelly, an artist who creates reborning dolls. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

In Reborning, Kelly’s special artistic talent for satisfying her clients’ exacting demands by replicating dolls solely from photographs is what she stakes her reputation on.  The play opens with a highly unsettling image—Kelly is crouched over a worktable, surgically implanting individual eyelashes into her baby’s eyelids with sharp puncturing tools, finishing flourishes on her latest artwork.  Her process is cleverly made available to the audience through a camera set-up that magnifies everything in gargantuan detail for her on a large screen.  And the details are astonishing—a life size latex baby replete with wrinkles, folds, drools, and hair whirls is painstakingly painted with layers and layers of paint right down to its flaking skin and unique retinal patterning. 

The play focuses on her relationship with her client Emily played masterfully by Lorri Holt–who appeared last year at SF Playhouse in Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper.  Emily is a brusk 50-something career woman who lost her infant daughter Eva some 25 years ago, and has commissioned Kelly to create a replica.  When Emily expresses some reservations about the quality of Kelly’s work, a whole range of emotions are triggered that send Kelly spiraling back into her own tragic childhood abandonment—she was stabbed and left for dead in a dumpster.   As Kelly begins to suspect that Emily is her birthmother, and that she has actually been commissioned to replicate her own infant self, she turns to familiar coping mechanisms—drugs and alcohol.  There is something in Emily that we can all relate to–she was thrown in a dumpster at birth but we’ve all been dumped at some point in our lives by people we should have been able to count on.  The sting of that can really mess with the mind and resurface in subsequent relationships.      

In "Reborning" Kelly (Lauren English) and Daizy (Alexander Alioto) find their sex drives out of sync when Kelly starts to process her childhood wounding. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

In "Reborning" Kelly (Lauren English) and Daizy (Alexander Alioto) find their sex drives out of sync when Kelly starts to process her childhood wounding. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

The play is loaded with poignancy and layers of symbolism.   If you’ve ever done therapy around childhood trauma, you may be familiar with any number of therapeutic processes that encourage revisiting the past and nurturing your inner child as a form of self-healing.  On one level, merely watching Reborning fast-tracks the cathartic aspect of this process.  Kelly’s and Emily’s visceral interaction with baby Eva, who symbolizes different aspects of the wounded self, and with each other is painfully real.  Dohrn’s ability to write these utterly complex female roles so believably, as if he’s right up inside their heads and defenses, is uncanny.  

Kelly’s partner, Daizy, (Alexander Alioto), is also meticulously crafted as a loving and devoted, but basically helpless, witness to her meltdown.  Daizy, who has neither experienced Kelly’s painful trauma around abandonment nor Emily’s maternal loss, is the vehicle through which the young couple’s issues around intimacy and childbearing are brought out.  He wants to talk; she wants to escape.  His humor provides relief from the paralyzing  pain playing out on stage and his courage to support his woman through validating her process is a message all partners need to heed. 

Directed by Josh Costello. Set Nina Ball; lighting, Michael Palumbo; sound design, Cliff Caruthers; video, Kristin Miltner; costumes, Miyuki Bierlein, props, Jacqueline Scott; doll designers, Cher Simnitt, Stef Baldwin, and Illusions of Life.

Details: Reborning runs 85 minutes without intermission. The SF Playhouse is located at 533 Sutter Street (one block off Union Square, between Powell & Mason Streets).  Performances: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., plus Saturdays at 3 p.m.  Tickets: ($30-$50) SF Playhouse box office (415) 677-9596, or

May 9, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment