To try to imagine a tougher sell than Scena Theatre’s Purge would be to invite nightmares.
The play, which Finnish dramatist Sofi Oksanen subsequently adapted into a novel that has fetched her a bathtub of European literary honors since 2008, depicts the suffering of three generations of women, subjugated by militant Communist thugs at the dawn of the Cold War and sadistic capitalist pimps in its aftermath. In the details of the sexual torture to which they’re subjected—the production’s only mercy is that they’re described and suggested via sound rather than shown—Oksanen fashions a grisly metaphor for the twisting political fortunes of Estonia, where democracy flowered briefly between 1920 and 1940 before being supplanted by Soviet, and then Nazi, and then Soviet totalitarianism. Though it’s become a highly democratic, well-educated nation since the Iron Curtain fell, the Estonia presented here, in scenes hopscotching from roughly 1950 to 1992, is an overgrown forest of horrors where only the narrowest shafts of sunlight peek through. Bring the kids!
Real talk: Do not under any circumstances bring the kids.
The play opens in 1947, with a harrowing scene of a girl with a bag over her head being tormented by two Soviet soldiers. We then skip forward 45 years to meet a bruised-and-confused Zara (Colleen Delany) waking up in a strange woman’s garden. Aliide, the worldly old lady who finds her, knows better than to swallow her story about being a lost waitress from Germany. Still, Aliide (Kerry Waters, sporting an accent that sounds more Irish than Eastern European to my admittedly provincial ear, but who is otherwise entrancing) knows well the face of terror, and she agrees to take Zara in. She turns out to be an old hand at sheltering the hunted, as we learn when we return to mid-century, when she was a pretty young woman (Irina Koval, now) in a loveless marriage to Martin, a rising Communist party member.
Propping up this backstory is even more backstory. While the narrative is complex and occasionally opaque, it’s a credit to director Robert McNamara that we remain as oriented in the parallel 1950s and 1990s plotlines as we do. In the ’50s, the Communists are cleansing the nation of Kulaks—landowning capitalists—casually using rape and torture to create a climate of fear wherein neighbors are reported as “enemies of the people.”
Forty years later, the ideology is different, but the tactics are sadly unchanged. In one early, ’92-set scene, Armand Sindoni asks Stas Wronka, “Which do you want, Estonia or Finland?”—echoing the way Hitler and Stalin carved up Europe in 1939. Sindoni and Wronka play the villains in both eras, and the menace of their performances is palpable. Squat and bald, Sindoni is more imposing physically, but it’s Wronka—playing a middle-aged former KGB man who mourns his wife—who’s the calmer, greater threat, betraying no sense of his reflections until he’s decided your fate.
Strong, committed work from the entire company keeps the audience emotionally on the hook even in moments when the dense plot, and frequent references to two characters we never see, threaten to induce vertigo. The most haunting section of the evening is the fable-like interlude wherein young Aliide hides her dissident brother-in-law in the cellar of her house, a years-long act of love that curdles over time. Aliide’s not-wholly-pure motives are what make her a compelling character, and both Korval and Waters give her many layers their due.
Lee Ordeman, meanwhile, is the man beneath the floorboards, whom Aliide dares allow to emerge only infrequently for meals or a bath. The first time we see him, he strips naked and folds himself into a tiny washtub, then steps out and dresses again. Actors live for these opportunities to prove to us that they’re not vain, and that it’s all about the art. But in a show that confronts the institutional exploitation and abuse of women so unsparingly, it’s admirable that the only nudity on offer is a dude’s.
I Wish You Love By Dominic Taylor Directed by Lou Bellamy; Penumbra Theatre Company at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to June 19
I Wish You Love is an original “drama with music” from St. Paul, Minn.’s Penumbra Theatre that tells how beloved entertainer Nat “King” Cole chose to end his groundbreaking TV variety show, which ran for 64 consecutive weeks in 1956 and ’57.
Two elements provide reliable laughs: As Cole, Dennis W. Spears instantly banishes all frustration from his face with a well-practiced mile-wide grin each time he goes on the air. The other consistent source of amusement is the presumably unaltered TV spots for Kodak, Brylcreem, and Dial soap that punctuate these broadcasts. The advertisements of eras past are almost always funny for the way they lay bare the perceived desires of the audience, but these ads serve a more critical purpose: They show us just how white the TV landscape was in the years when America liked Ike. If it seems nuts that a crooner as charming, stylish, and—on camera, at least—unperturbed as the man who wrote “The Christmas Song” could be perceived as a threat, watch that Brylcreem commercial again.
Cole dipped into his own pocket to keep the show going, and A-list friends like Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tony Bennett all appeared for union-minimum wage, but it was no use: No national sponsor would underwrite a show hosted by a black man, and Cole eventually balked at the strings attached to NBC’s offer to keep funding it themselves—for instance, that he segregate his band, which never even appeared on-camera.
Ironic then, that the absence of a band is the biggest flaw keeping I Wish You Love from living up to its considerable potential. The show features 20 songs—far too many given that Spears is singing to prerecorded music. Spears is a stronger actor than he is a vocalist, or in any event, many of the selections don’t suit him. So what are they doing here? Enough of the songs fail to advance or comment upon the story in any resonant way that you’d think they were chosen solely because Spears can sing the shit out of them. He doesn’t, for the most part. There’s also an abundance of redundancy. “Pretend” would have more impact if we hadn’t already heard Spears sing “Smile,” for instance, which expresses exactly the same don’t-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down sentiment.
So-so singing is still real singing, at least. When Kevin D. West and Eric Berryman, rounding out Cole’s musical trio, pretend to play bass and guitar, their conspicuous finger-syncing stymies suspension of disbelief in a way that, say, a chintzy-looking set would not. (C. Lance Brockman’s TV-studio set is just dandy, by the way.) I hate to knock West and Berryman, though: Pretend musicianship aside, they’re the best part of the show, playing the sidemen Cole confided in and relied upon, and giving the piece its heart.
When he decided to throw in the towel rather than shuffle to the network’s tune, Cole delivered the show’s stinging epitaph himself: “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.” Like the TV show it recalls, I Wish You Love is worthy but underfunded. Hey, Kodak and Dial are both still around. Are they paying for this product placement?