As if in answer to Tom Sellar’s recent complaint in these pages about the dearth of international theater in New York, FoolsFURY Theater Company offers The Devil on All Sides, a prize-winning work by young French playwright Fabrice Melquiot. The piece, set during Yugoslavia’s civil war, eschews specific politics, primarily bringing the news that war is hell. That’s news always worth hearing, and Melquiot reports it in an intricate and fresh theatrical lingo.
Melquiot’s play centers on Serbian Lorko (Joseph William) and Bosnian Muslim Elma (Nora el Samahy), who have chosen the worst possible moment in their nation’s history to marry. The couple are soon separated when Lorko’s refusal to participate in ethnic cleansing sends him fleeing to France. Elma remains with Lorko’s household, which includes his increasingly hostile brother Jovan (Brian Livingston) and the increasingly disabled Alexander (Ryan O’Donnell). Alexander serves as a bodily index to the carnage outside, losing his eyes, his ear, and his hand to the war.
As the spectacle of this track-suited bumpkin spouting slogans along with gore suggests, Melquiot works primarily in a realism pitched between magical and hysterical. He’s best at registering dislocation, whether the struggles of Lorko in his new French environs, or the deeper disorientations of his family, surrounded by the war-torn remnants of the modern society to which they’d thought they belonged. In one remarkable moment, the family, shaken by a bombardment, rallies around a radio playing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Heartbreaking and ridiculous, the spare scene conveys volumes about the country’s situation, suspended between present and past, blending futility and hope. Crystallizing his powerful, strange vision in such tableaux, Melquiot makes up for his less happy Gallic tendency to burden his characters with occasional poetic-philosophical monologues, all but dazzling in their pseudo-profundity.
FoolsFURY, a San Francisco group with ties to New York’s Banana Bag & Bodice, delivers a solid, if not flawless, version of The Devil on All Sides. The Meyerholdian movement deployed by director (and translator) Ben Yalom both defamiliarizes and conveys the emotional impact of the play’s action. As Lorko, William creates a generally affecting portrait of a man cast adrift, while Stephen Jacob is particularly sharp as Vid, Lorko’s disengaged father. But performers in supporting roles often seem infected with a virulent self-consciousness—a dangerous quality given the play’s tonal and textural instability. Even if they occasionally lose their grip on Melquiot’s unruly play, FoolsFURY does a true service in introducing this singular voice to our coast.