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Belgrade Trilogy

by Rich See

I'm supposed to understand why kids want to lynch me.
---Jovan explaining the incident that forced him to leave Belgrade and come to Los Angeles

Fleeing their homeland after watching fellow countrymen embrace an ultra-patriotic ideology while ignoring the nation's deeper social problems, as the country's leaders look outward for an enemy to heap blame upon, while making profits from the war machine... America in 2005? Not yet. It's Serbia 1995 in Scena Theatre's newest intellectual drama Belgrade Trilogy. Written in 1996 by Biljana Srbljanovic following a year when 200,000 Serbs emigrated from Serbia, specifically Belgrade, and went to points through out the world to escape the depressed reality of their lives. Ms. Srbljanovic's play reflects the real lives of twenty-somethings who either started over in new countries or remained to tough out the war years. Either way, as the playwright astutely points out, it was a difficult situation.

For an American audience it is helpful to understand that prior to the four wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, Belgrade was an intellectual and cultural epicenter in Eastern Europe. Its affluent citizens well educated, traveled, and acquainted with the West's movies, books, and music. Belgrade was a destination city for Eastern Europeans, especially the young looking for more freedom, opportunities, intellectual discussion, artistic expression, and exciting nightlife. Belgrade's young people who came of age under Slobodan Milosevic's rule were raised by their parents to expect a certain lifestyle, even though they had been indoctrinated to disdain Capitalistic beliefs by the country's socialist government.

It's this twenty-something generation that Biljana Srbljanovic has starting over in new countries where they don't know the language, have no money, and where their academic degrees and ethnic heritage are looked at with derision. It's these young academics, professionals, and artists who are upset by a war they don't agree with -- not so much because of its atrocities, but because of its disruption in their lives -- that Ms. Srbljanovic has pushed to the edge of sanity in a disturbing, brooding drama with surprising bits of dark humor. It's angry, determined, despairing, cynical, and brims with a sadness of unfulfilled potential. Perhaps not what everyone desires to rush out and view for an evening of theatre, but it's not designed to make you feel light, it's designed to make you think.

Set up as three distinct, yet inter-related stories, Belgrade Trilogy takes place on the same New Year's Eve in three apartments in Prague, Sydney, and Los Angeles. Each of the stories is a different tale, as a group of Serbs meets to ring in the New Year, discuss their lives, and grapple with life in the Capitalist West. As they fight, feud, lie to each other, and begin to crack under the tension, it becomes apparent that the connecting thread of each story is a young, Serbian woman named Ana Simovic who makes a momentary appearance in the final minutes of the play.

Director Robert McNamara has highlighted the dark humor in Belgrade Trilogy, having his cast play to the jokes with an uneasy, angry despair. Mr. McNamara seems to understand these displaced people and the stress that is bringing each to the breaking point in some way. With this sense of people not knowing how to make their way, his cast does an admirable job of making us laugh and then making us cringe. Set designer Michael C. Stepowany's simple, basic apartment houses a huge brown map of the former Yugoslavia as a constant reminder of how Belgrade is always in mind, no matter how far the characters may travel from it.

Cast standouts include John Slone's bullying Kica Jovic who's enthralled with being a singing sensation -- even if that singing is at a local bar doing campy dance numbers. Chris Davenport brings out the pathos of Mica Jovic who is about to tumble into the emotional abyss. Adrienne Nelson is both funny and scary as a mother suffering from severe post-natal depression. When she announces that she has put the baby to sleep you aren't sure if she sang it a lullaby or smothered it with a pillow. Ellie Nicoll is supremely irritating as an upper-society daughter forced to socialize with people she would never have bothered speaking to in her old neighborhood. Dan Brick shows us the saddest aspects of the play as a nice guy trying to escape violence -- only to inescapably find it 10,000 miles away. Linda Murray presents the sanest voice as Mara, a pianist who is forced to give up her artistic pursuits and her friends to take a chance on making a new life -- a chance she doesn't really want to take, but feels forced to -- and so is making the best of her situation. Denman C. Anderson's Daca is a frightening young man within whom violence has made a home. And Svetlana Tikhonov as Ana Simovic speaks volumes, without saying a single word, about those who chose to stay and face the situations in Serbia.

Belgrade Trilogy is a cautionary tale at both a national and individual level. But while it paints a bleak picture for a country denying its ethical behavior and blindly following bad leaders to the brink of disaster, it does not offer much more hope for those who oppose the madness by either choosing to leave or to stay. As my guest for the evening astutely put it, "You're either damned if you do or damned if you don't." Something for all of us to think about...

Belgrade Trilogy
by Biljana Srbljanovic
Directed by Robert McNamara
with John Slone, Chris Davenport, Linda Murray, Adrienne Nelson, Ellie Nicoll, Dan Brick, Denman C. Anderson, Svetlana Tikhonov
Set Design: Michael C. Stepowany
Lighting Design: Denman C. Anderson
Sound Design: David Crandall
Costumes: Susanne Hylen
Properties: Meaghan Toohey
Choreography: Jaime Coronado
Running Time: 2 hours with no intermission
A production of Scena Theatre
Warehouse Theater, 1019 Seventh Street, NW, Washington DC
Telephone: 703-684-7990
WED - FRI @8, SAT @2;$25
Opening 04/15/04, closing 05/15/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 04/29/04 performance
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