The current Obsidian Theatre production, in association with Nightwood Theatre, of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer prize-winning drama Ruined is a powerful examination of war and misogyny in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Focusing on the lives of a group of women who have been sexually abused by soldiers, the script deals with fragments of their lives, as they attempt to cushion themselves from rampant violence by working in a brothel run by a woman who has taken it upon herself to create a very conflicted form of refuge for her comrades.
Yanna McIntosh as Mama Nadi leads the cast with a strong, idiosyncratic performance that never falters. She occupies the bar room of her ‘business’ with a mixture of playful agility and strong, aggressive ownership that establishes her as the primary force behind the salvation of women trapped by the indiscriminate and violent desire of wayward, brutalizing soldiers. Sabryn Rock, Sophia Walker, and Marci T. House, as the women working under Mama Nadi’s complex regime of self preservation and prostitution, deliver strong performances that hold the ensemble together with a variety of emotion and sharp characterization. However, the current production frequently falters under the weight of a cumbersome design concept and uneven direction that tends to narrow the intensity of the action and render it somewhat awkward.
The initial sight of a detailed naturalistic set presents the audience with a glimpse of the women’s daily lives in a private/public space of blighted relaxation and frequently intruded upon comfort. As the drama unfolds this environment becomes a complex trap that simultaneously houses their salvation and their imprisonment. The intense claustrophobic naturalism of the set works as an adequate playing area, yet tends to underscore the drama with too much material clutter, thereby restricting the action and intensity of emotion that permeates the text. A wall of noisy, beautiful, yet contrived beaded curtains, and a shallow outdoor entrance, unnecessarily encumber the ensemble’s physicality and the expansive metaphoric complexity of a nation at war with itself on a continent exploited by complex social and political elements. The plot might have been better served by a less furnished and more landscape-nuanced setting suggesting the vast beauty of a continent ravaged by global negligence and a struggle over ethnic rights and natural resources. The soldiers never attain the kind of aggressive violence in their movement needed in order to represent the actual import of their horrific crimes. Scenes near the end rely upon the emotional dexterity of McIntosh’s Mama Nadi and her paramour (Sterling Jarvis as Christian) in order to bring the play to a satisfying and emotionally charged conclusion.
Ultimately Ruined is an important and moving script that requires a complex, layered production in order to bring worldwide complicity in the plight of African nations to the forefront. The Obsidian Theatre production does an admirable job, yet frequently weakens under a barrage of anti-climactic physicality that might have highlighted the atrocities as metaphors to global greed, rather than rendering them awkward, physically strained, and falsely separate from a larger scheme that reveals third world strife as unwilling handmaiden to first world excess.
Ruined runs until February 12 at the Canstage Berkeley Street downstairs theatre.