As difficult as it is to capture onstage an enormity such as genocide, a play at Brown University Theater is doubling the stakes by also addressing the maternal consequences of the deaths of young innocents. Erik Ehn's Yermedea RAW is being staged in Leeds Theatre through September 30, directed by Kym Moore and produced by the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies and Sock & Buskin.
VISUAL, AURAL, EMOTIONAL Erik Ehn, author of Yermedea RAW.
As if to declare that words and rational discourse fall short in capturing such matters, the play is a collection of visual, aural, and emotional moments rather than a conventional narrative. Now and then, a puppet designed and directed by Alejandra Prieto joins the 13 actors.
The themes of two related theatrical tragedies, one familiar and the other obscure, are combined here. Euripides's Medea is about a mother driven to murder her children, and Federico Garcia Lorca's Yerma is about a woman who desperately wants to conceive children but cannot.
Those brief descriptions and what empathy they evoke are pretty much the only things Yermedea RAW takes from the stories that inspired it. The play is not an examination of those two characters but of a parallel Yerma (Alejandra Rivera Flaviá) and Medea (Emma Thorne) in a Central American setting. Similarly, specifics of American culpability in the civil war in El Salvador of the 1980s are not gone into, just the tendency of unchecked soldiers to run amok.
This is not a polemical play, since it depicts rather than argues. It begins and concludes with the sound of breathing, the essence of life. At the opening, shoes are scattered about the stage — vestiges of people taken away (perhaps killed?). The play ends with the ensemble removing their shoes, but this time they are placed orderly, side-by-side. If the preceding had been more affecting, this note of hope and optimism could have been quite touching. But this telling is too abstract to be more felt than thought about. After all, genocide has far too much import to be reduced to pathos.
After the opening breath, three of the ensemble blow into oddly shaped instruments to make whistling sounds, a ritualized call to order. The group thus assembled recites, in Spanish, the poem "Los Nadies," by Uraguayan journalist and author Eduardo Galeano. Well capturing the tone of the play, it begins, "The nobodies: the sons of no one/The owners nothing/The nobodies: treated as no one."
Standing with us as witness to the proceedings is a military nurse (Ellen Shadburn), dressed in khaki, with a Red Cross symbol on her cap. Accompanying her through the turmoil is a small puppet, a bus driver in flannel shirt and straw hat. "This is where they fell," she tells him. And: "One woman wanted to kill her children; the other woman wanted children very badly." And, evocatively: "Daylight is the fire of a wreck."
Oddly, Medea is in a cheerfully colorful, bright yellow dress, but the yearning Yerma is dressed darkly. The two women take two little, faceless stuffed figures representing babies and teach them to stand, soon reprimanding them for becoming aggressive and pushing each other. Eventually, soldiers come, do what harm they can, and the two women are soon stacking several of the figures, little corpses. To the nurse, the bus driver says, "What you cannot admit is that their husbands were with the soldiers" when the latter were killing and raping.