Ruined -- Theater Review

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The subject matter of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winner is deeply disturbing. But somehow, however improbably, the play turns out to be a Africa-set frontier love story set in that's reminiscent of 1930s last-frontier movies like "Only Angels Have Wings."

The setting is a Congo trading-post bar-cum-brothel along the travel line from east to west during the last wave of atrocities. It revolves around three women who repeatedly have been violated. Their determination to regain their human pride is what makes the play go.

The most dramatic example is the way in which young farmer's wife Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) brings her nervous system under control after five months of being used like an animal by soldiers, blinded to the fear they are suffering and the pain they are inflicting. Her use of her body, symbolized by her crippled fingers slowly staggering back to life, is a study in pure beauty.

The rest of the play revolves around watching Salima, Sophie (Condola Rashad) and Mama Nadi (Portia) reveal and then find themselves. Rashad's challenge is to create an unforgettable portrait of an angel with an angelic voice. She succeeds in a unique way, with wide eyes and an inner beauty reflected by her face and body.

Portia has a different assignment: to organize the troops and then get ready for the denouement. When she is the madam of the trading post, determined to make it on her own, she is loud and boisterous, keeping emotion away. But when she wants to size someone up, she insists on holding their hands and looking into their eyes.

With all of this firepower, the key to making it work is the role played by Christian the traveling salesman (Russell G. Jones), whose ability to mimic various demographic groups gives the play an important dimensionality. Despite his eloquence, Tom Mardirosian as diamond dealer Mr. Harari looks appropriately lost in the raging shuffle. The many and varied soldiers are an impressively brutish lot, like the ones on TV and in the movies.

But it's much more a 3D movie, or it wouldn't have won the Pulitzer. In addition to entertaining and edifying you, Nottage makes you want to throw your own body in front of these monstrosities, and there were shrieks and groans from the audience throughout the two-hour show.

In fact, "Ruined" has nothing to do about politics except everything. The message is clear: Make the men stop killing the women, and acknowledge that we have a situation in our country where men regularly erupt in violence. For some reason, we call it domestic violence. The parallels couldn't be more clear.

The most magical thing about the play is the coda at the end Act 2. Act 1 is lavish and technicolor, like a Harry Belafonte cover when he was grooving on RCA wax.

The magic and surprise of the coda turned out to be totally authentic and very satisfying. Somehow, you leave the theater in a positive mood. Nottage has written a very human play about a very inhuman reality that is caught to perfection by this production and its director, Kate Whoriskey. The desperation she feels hastens the hopeless race.

Warning: Act 2 is hell -- abundant material for nightmares. Take children at your risk.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through Oct. 17)
Cast: Portia, Condola Rashad, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Cherise Boothe, Russell G. Jones, David St. Louis, Tongayi Chirisa, Tom Mardirosian, Carl Cofield, Ron McBee, Stephen Tyrone Williams
Playwright-lyrics: Lynn Nottage
Director: Kate Whoriskey
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designers/musical directors: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Composer: Dominic Kanza
Choreographer: Warren Adams
Casting director: Phyllis Schuringa
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