by Lynn on February 7, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

Yanna McIntosh as Mama Nadi

At The Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs. Written by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Philip Akin. Set by Gillian Gallow. Costumes by Nadine Grant. Lighting by Rebecca Picherack. Starring: Yanna McIntosh, Sterling Jarvis, Sabryn Rock, Sophia Walker. Produced by Obsidian Theatre in association with Nightwood Theatre.

RUINED is set in the Republic of Congo. Civil war is raging. Who are the rebels and who are the forces in control changes daily. In the middle of this is Mama Nadi. She runs a make-shift brothel in the jungle and caters to anybody as long as they  pay andleave their guns at the door.

Christian is a businessman who helps her occasionally with supplies and lipstick. One day he comes to her with an urgent request. He wants her to take in two young women–Salima and Sophie– who have no where to go. Salima is petite and pretty. She had been kidnapped from her village by rebels who held her for five months and used her as a sex slave and cook. When they weren’t raping her every day they tied her to a tree like an animal. When she was released and sent back to her village, she was rejected by them including her husband. Salima describes herself as ‘damaged.’

Sophie is fragile and frightened. She was raped by a bayonet and walks very gingerly, limping. Christian is desperate that Mama Nadi take her in. Sophie is his niece. When pressed he confesses that Sophie is ‘ruined.’ Mama Nadi is furious at this news because it means Sophie can’t work as one of the brothel girls. But Sophie proves useful by singing  for the customers and helping with the accounts.  We also learn that Mama Nadi has her own stunning secret.

Every day is a challenge for Mama, her girls and Christian. Using cunning  diplomacy they all must navigate between the various warring factions. They must appear neutral and calm brutish men who think killing and raping is their right. The play is loaded with emotion, heightened tension, and the constant possibility of explosive violence. Miraculously in this gripping situation comes hope when you least expect it.

Kudos to Artistic Director Philip Akin for being tenacious in securing the rights for this Pulitzer Prize-winning play for Obsidian Theatre  and for casting it with such a strong ensemble. As Mama Nadi, Yanna McIntosh finds the graceful, steely centre of Mama, who is wily, hard-nosed and a survivor. As Salima, Sophia Walker is absolutely compelling when she tells the brutal story of what happened to make her damaged. Walker speaks almost in a whisper when she relates her story and is motionless in the telling. The result is that she is riveting. As Sophie, Sabryn Rock is constantly watchful, never allowing herself to be comfortable. And as Christian, Sterling Jarvis is a mix of confidence, frustration and grit.

Philip Akin has directed the production so we are constantly aware of the danger for the characters that lurks outside the door. We are always mindful that it could come from any one of the soldiers who wanders in looking for a drink, a woman or a fight.

I do have a concerns though.  While the play is loaded with heightened tension, Akin tends to back off putting it front and centre so that we can’t look away.  The result is that the production seems  ‘flat’. At one point a group of soldiers are going to rape Sophie. They grab her; take her upstage; bend her face down on the pool table and spread her legs. The problem is that she is obscured by soldiers who are standing in front of the table; and almost in a thrice the danger passes. That’s a cheat and lets the audience off easy. It’s a play about brutish behaviour. The scene has to be downstage in our faces where we cannot look away. Occasionally the focus of scenes at centre stage, is pulled by too much business on the periphery.  That said, the power of the play is there.

Some quibbles.  Lynn Nottage does not specify anywhere in her play what ‘ruined’ actually means. And it’s confusing when Sophie is described as ‘ruined’ and Salima describes herself as ‘damaged.’  They are not the same. While an effort is made in the production to subtly show what ‘ruined’ means–Sophie delicately rubs the front of her crotch to indicate where she was hurt (remember that bayonet) it’s not enough. A program note would have helped. ‘Ruined’ means genitally mutilated.

About that program…it’s maddeningly confusing. Actors nams are listed in order of appearance but not the characters they play. To find that out, you have to flip through the program, find the actor’s name and see their character listed beside the name. Confusing. Can we please have the actors and their characters listed together next time? And whatever Obsidan’s next play is, I look forward to it eagerly.

RUINED plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs until Feb. 12, 2011.

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1 Lynn Slotkin April 23, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Thanks for this.