The Flying Foot Forum, a percussive dance/theatre company directed by Joe Chvala, took on a very ambitious project with Heaven: to portray the complicated politics and deep suffering of 1990s Bosnia through dance, music, and drama. It was clear from the outset of this production, which played at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, that the group’s dance and music background was going to be the show’s greatest strength. During the fifteen-minute pre-show featuring breathtakingly talented singer Natalie Nowytski, the audience was treated to an impressive concert of Balkan music, setting the scene for what promised to be a culturally immersive experience. Those moments of cultural immersion, where the production’s years-long research and development process become apparent, are the highlights of the show. (Language and Cultural Consultant Stela Osmancevic deserves much credit in this respect.)

The show’s other strength is its dancing. Chvala’s choreography incorporates a wide range of styles and manages provocatively to foreground some of the most horrific aspects of the Bosnian conflict. The initial dance sequence vividly stages how quickly a friendly bar with patrons of many ethnic and religious backgrounds can become a polarized site of tension and hatred. Another dance appears at first to be the lament of a rape victim, but shifts into a powerful collective revenge fantasy of several victims of sexual violence against their aggressors. The dancers execute these and other sequences beautifully, all of which highlight their strength as an ensemble.

Although the dance and Balkan singing are consistently top-notch, the production fails to deliver on both technical and ideological levels. The music by Chan Poling sounds strangely like a poor knockoff of Rent with cringe-inducing lyrics like “On the day the world ends, you still have to brush your teeth.” And while the accents and the language itself are clearly well-researched, the acting – particularly by Anderson Cooper lookalike Doug Scholz-Carlson, who plays an earnest if misguided American photojournalist named Peter Adamson, often misses the mark. This may not, however, be solely the fault of the actors: the mixing of styles that works so well in the choreography comes across as muddled during much of the rest of the production. Scenes and songs are frequently interrupted by voice-overs that seem unnecessary. In addition, English subtitles of lyrics and lines in Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian are projected onto the upstage wall. These subtitles do little to foster comprehension – in most cases the content can easily be followed without translation. Instead, they detract from the plot and diminish whatever pathos might have been mustered.

Such translations are but one element of this production that undermines its self-proclaimed mission to call into question both the American ability to understand the conflict in Bosnia and the capacity of international journalism to stop or even to witness mass violence. While the play critiques the efforts of caring American journalists such as Scholz-Carlson’s Peter Adamson to “make a difference” or “tell people’s stories” it also repeatedly insists that he can do both these things and more. At best, the play’s message is confused. At worst, it puts forth a deeply flawed picture of how Americans might come to understand foreign cultures and conflicts.

Of course it makes sense to have Peter Adamson serve as the audience’s major point of identification (assuming most of the audience was American). Furthermore, his role as a journalist echoes the previous exposure many would have already had to the Bosnian conflict through photos and stories in the news. But instead of operating as a lens through which the audience might learn more about this event and its legacies, Adamson’s personal and professional problems dominate the drama and crowd out the many important issues that might have been more fully explored. For example, several scenes hinge on the efforts of Peter’s sometime guide Faruk (Eric Webster) and love interest Lejla (Laurel Armstrong) – people who have witnessed the murders of family members and who have little hope of escaping conflict zones – to comfort Peter about his inability to translate his “care” into effective intervention. As a result for all its claims to “want to understand” the violence, the play instead seeks to absolve Americans of their collective impotence to stop it. What could have been a powerful exploration of conflict, then, adds up to a meditation on American humanitarian voyeurism, in which we imagine that our horror at mass violence and desire to preserve Balkan culture – whether through Adamson’s photography or through dance/theatre productions such as this one – are enough to warrant a pat on the back as we leave our seats and travel back home.

We should note, though, that most of the rest of the audience seemed to love the show – perhaps for all the reasons that we did not. As a standing ovation rose around us, we looked at each other, looked at the cheering crowd, and severely questioned our own judgment of the play. But the reasons for their enjoyment of the show, as well as our negative reactions, clarified both the strengths and weaknesses of the production and our own thoughts about the responsibility of theatre. As the audience demonstrated, our need for absolution is great when faced with so many worldwide crises which we feel powerless to stop. But is that catharsis really the best way to use the Guthrie’s resources and the Flying Foot Forum’s obvious talent? Although we risk unpopularity, we continue to hope that theatre – particularly when it takes on such important subjects as human rights violations – has more to offer.

Presented by the Flying Foot Forum
March 25 – April 10, 2011
Guthrie Theater, Dowling Studio
818 South Second St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415

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