Working Group Theatre's production of The Toymaker's War, playing through this afternoon at Iowa City's Riverside Theatre, is about writing and responsibility, the ineffable mix of trauma, journalism, and art that troubled much of the twentieth century and, as evidenced by the recent polemic over John d'Agata's work, still troubles us today.
The five-character, 90-minute play has twin plots, one in a Bosnian village in 1995, where all the adults have disappeared and only children are left, the other in present-day New York, where a journalist has just been subpoenaed by the UN War Crimes Tribunal as a witness to something that happened in that village nearly twenty years ago. The movement back and forth between the two historical moments, one in the midst of an unfolding catastrophe, the other looking back and trying to make sense of it, create multiple points of tension, the simplist on the level of plot--we want to discover what happened, but the others are more complex.
The character of Sylvie (played by Ottavia DeLuca) is young and idealistic, but also ambitiously single-minded about getting a story that will launch her career. She gets it and is successful and admired as a result, but the cost to her conscience is clear from the start. Her earnestnes makes her attractive. Her willingness to manipulate others, their stories, and her own, is more troubling. The shifts between her younger and more mature self, which coincide with the movement from one plot to the other, are handled quite efficiently on stage, with minimal set or costume changes, a fluidity that helps to see Sylvie as one person, even if she's rather split in two inside.
Sylvie's doubled quality is hinted at in the cultural, lingustic, and religious mixture that she highlights (French Catholic and American Jew) in her conversations with the Bosnian children. They too are mixed, Serb and Muslim, and the mixture of languages on stage creates an almost hopeful atmosphere of sharing for a short moment. But here too one wonders about Sylvie's motives. Is she just trying to win their trust in order to get her story, painting a version of herself that she thinks they will be more likely to find attractive and worthy of their trust?
Finally, there is the audience's involvement, our watching of a spectacle based on real-life trauma that is not really that old, and even if it was, would be no less difficult to understand and represent. Our complicity in watching. The playwright's complicity in telling this story. The players' complicity in playing it. This is a familiar problem to anyone who has thought about the literature of trauma, the poetry of WWI, holocaust fiction, atomic bomb novels, seige memoirs, and so many others. We do need to be reminded, and this play has a memorializing aspect to it, too: the reading of the names of those who died. It is, properly, Sylvie who pronounces them.
The Toymaker's War, written by Jennifer Fawcett and directed by Sean Christopher Lewis will be touring throughout the Midwest in the coming months. For more information, check out their website here.