Children at play: You be Mama, I'll be Papa, let Andrija play the son. That little girl over there can be the dog, but who will play the soldiers? Who will play the men who fly the airplanes and drop the bombs? Who will bury the dead?
In "Family Stories: A Slapstick Tragedy," Serbian playwright Biljana Srbljanovic refracts Balkan politics through the eyes of four Belgrade schoolchildren playing "house." The time is 1999, at the height of the NATO bombings. Through their play-acting, Andrija, Milena, Vojin and Nadezda sort through the confusing world of their parents, a world of trickle-down cruelty, in which husband betrays wife, wife batters son, son kicks dog, Serbs despise Croats, a smart man keeps his mouth shut, and the most hated name is "President Clinton" -- a name the children know only as some faraway stranger responsible for the dreadful whine of the bombs.
It's a radically different perspective of a U.S. military intervention than most of us are privy to these days, but Rorschach Theatre has bravely brought it to the stage in a production that offers, without any trace of sentimentality, all the banality, boredom, absurdity and terror of war.
Like Samuel Beckett before her, Srbljanovic offers no answers, only questions. But what questions! I challenge anyone -- regardless of your position on the current war -- to sit through Srbljanovic's extended parable and not be moved to reflection, if not reconsideration, of your assumptions. For the playwright is remarkably evenhanded in her treatment of the arguments for and against NATO intervention in the "ethnic cleansing" that shattered the former Yugoslavia. And she is ingenious in her conceit, bringing the politics to the child's eye-level -- where the naivete of the characters exposes the lie behind the rhetoric.
Rorschach Theatre brings to this production its trademark energy and conviction. Director Grady Weatherford sets the action in a bombed-out playground littered with NATO relief packages, where Matt Soule's set of rusted corrugated steel fence, barbed wire and faux concrete echoes the spiritual bleakness that grips the country. In "Family Stories," the children play out various scenarios in which Dad, Mom, son and dog cope with the disintegration of civil life. Mama is out of work because Papa has reported her to the authorities for suspicious behavior. Dinner comes out of one of those relief packages. The telephone line is tapped. Merely yelling slogans in the street is a treasonous act. Attending a mathematics competition can be suicide. The sidewalk opens up and swallows you. The sky rains lead.
Under Weatherford's direction, all this plays out in a kinetic, comic fashion. Weatherford reveals an acute appreciation for detail in staging the clumsy efforts of children to approximate adult activities. It falls to his actors, however, to meet the most extreme challenge of the play, which is to portray children pretending to be adults. Maggie Glauber and Mark Sullivan as Milena and her brother Vojin strive for a manic, naive energy, in which youngsters spout platitudes they don't wholly understand.
But the play really belongs to the more thoughtful Andrija (Andrew Price) and Nadezda (Sarah Painter), a girl Srbljanovic describes as "a child with tics." Painter has few lines but considerable presence in the story; as she keens in her corner, chained to an old tire, she seems to embody the author's strongest reproach to her native country. And Price nicely affects a 10-year-old's ability to blithely flip between outright cruelty and compassion. As his feelings for Nadezda become more clear to him, his response to the world around him becomes more purposeful as well.
Family Stories: A Slapstick Tragedy, by Biljana Srbljanovic. Translated by Rebecca Anne Rugg. Directed by Grady Weatherford. Lighting, David C. Ghatan; costumes, Denise Umland; sound, Mark K. Anduss; props, Suzen Mason. Produced by Rorschach Theatre. Through May 10 at Casa Del Pueblo at the Calvary Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW. Call 703-715-6707.