For its 10-day engagement in Washington, the Zagreb Theatre Company from Yugoslavia has bypassed the Kennedy Center, the usual stopover point for foreign visitors, and opted to play in the streets. But then, this is not one of those effete cultural events that call for plush carpets and chandeliers.
Using the shabby Apex Building at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW as its backdrop, and bleachers as seats, this vigorous troupe lances the festering boil that was the German occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II in a fierce drama called "The Liberation of Skopje." Even though last night's opening performance had its hitches, the uncompromising ruthlessness of playwright Dusan Jovanovic's vision is manifest.
The company speaks Serbo-Croat, which is not the drawback you might imagine, especially if you run through the detailed synopsis in the program beforehand. Brutal emotions, exacerbated by the horrors of war, tend to be universal. And the lead actors enact them with a concentrated intensity that cuts through the particulars of language.
But "Skopje" is also largely cinematic in texture. There are, perhaps, three dozen scenes to the play and many of them serve merely to present us with a passing moment in the streets or the houses of a town besieged. What we are seeing are images out of a deranged kaleidoscope. Since Jovanovic is looking at war from the perspective of a 10-year-old boy, Zoran, those images are necessarily fragmented, often senseless.
Occasionally, two separate actions unfold at the same time, as if one reel of film were being superimposed upon another. While a clutch of Bulgarian agents beats Georgij, a resistence fighter, to a helpless pulp, a German officer with seduction on his mind puts a scratchy record on the Victrola and coaxes Zonan's reluctant mother into a dance. Children's games are juxtaposed with the far riskier games of adults trying to survive. And it is surely significant that one of the leitmotifs of the evening is a young Jewish girl diligently practicing the piano.
As Georgij, Rade Serbedzija delivers a harrowing portrayal of a strapping man who is turned by torture into a slobbering ruin. His body juts out like wreckage and the far flights of his mind hurtle up against the feeble vocabulary left in his head. In the play's most protracted scene, he struggles to communicate to his wife his wish to eat a pigeon for dinner. It is a pathetic, painful and finally heroic spectacle.
As his wife, Inge Appelt has the stolid strength and the firm sense of morality that will hold this disintegrating family together. Shame and fear register beautifully on the beautiful face of Perica Martinovic, Zoran's mother, who will sleep with the German if it means food for her family and stockings for herself. And, as Zoran, Danilo Serbedizja is an appealing child actor, properly rambunctious and vaguely oblivious, as youths are, of the tumult going on around him.
It is Jovanovic's ultimate point that the war soured a generation of youths, too young to know what was really happening, but old enough to lose their bearings for the rest of their lives. The Zagreb Theatre Company delivers it with force and stark dedication clear to even the most casual onlooker. Their work is as arresting as their outdoor playing space is unusual.
And at least a portion of the applause belongs to The Source Theatre, which had the imagination and industry to sponsor this rare visit.