As I’ve noted before, I have a friend who compiles an annual list of plays under the rubric “Bombs of the Year.” Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale is a ripe contender although, given its subject matter, it should probably be “Grenade of the Year.”
|Julia Ubrankovics, Tunde Skovran. Photo: Simion Buia.|
It’s been a while since I exited a production only to run into people standing right outside the door complaining about what they’d just seen, or for another critic, someone I barely know, anxious to tell me that his review will express his gratitude that the play was only 50 minutes long. I had that same thought myself.
Toys, at 59E59 Theaters, is an antiwar play by Romanian-born playwright Saviana Stanescu and presented by J.U.S.T. Toys Productions and the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York. It’s a two-hander starring Hungarian-born actress Julia Ubrankovics and Transylvanian-born Tunde Skovran as, respectively, the quiet, reserved Clara/Fatma and the aggressive, bitter Shari/Madonna. The actresses, who cofounded J.U.S.T. Toys Productions, have been touring with the play since its 2015 premiere in Los Angeles.
|Tunde Skovran, Julia Ubrankovics. Photo: Lindsey Mejia.|
Both deserve kudos for their strong and valiant work on behalf of a play—its original version written over a decade ago—whose appeal, reportedly, is strong for some but seriously knotty for most others. If a play is going to seek universal understanding and compassion for a serious problem, it will have to do better than that.
|Julia Ubrankovics, Tunde Skovran. Photo: Lindsey Mejia.|
The narrative, actually, is relatively straightforward: Clara, in the coziness of ivory tower academia, is researching her Ph.D. on “Women in War Zones.” She’s interviewing Shari, a refugee from the brutally war-torn nation of Karvystan—a fictional place whose capital is called Galajevo. Apart from its cruelty, nothing about the specifics of the war is described.
The heavily accented Shari, who prefers being called Madonna, first appears as a taciturn, mysterious woman in black leather, a black scarf over her head, and wearing large, black sunglasses. She reminded me, in fact, of the reticent, dark-garbed, sunglasses-wearing student in Julia Cho’s Office Hour. Unlike that menacing character, who turns out to be carrying a firearm, Madonna’s threat of choice is a hand grenade. This scary prop gets to sit center stage during much of what follows.
The barebones plotting offers no idea of how Clara contacted Shari. Still, Shari insists that Clara is Fatma, the sister from whom she was torn when they were children by an American couple able to adopt only one of the family’s kids. Clara strongly denies this, claiming to be unable to remember something from so long ago. How Shari knows this is also evaded. We must, I imagine, remember that this is "A Dark Fairy Tale" and forget logical considerations.
Shari not only suffered the trauma of childhood separation but grew up to become an English teacher forced to abandon her profession to serve as a “volunteer” nurse who had to clean war-torn body parts, even unrecognizable ones, to provide them with a proper burial.
Clara, despite Shari’s belief she had an idyllic upbringing in Connecticut, reveals her own childhood trauma from a male acquaintance’s sexual molestation. Eventually, the resistant Clara seems to accept she’s Shari’s sister and the women rejoice in a mock marriage.
However much this loose narrative seems to make sense of a sort on the page, regardless of the many huge expositional gaps it exposes, in performance it often becomes indecipherable. That’s because Romanian-Hungarian director Gábor Tompa—head of directing at the University of California, San Diego’s Theatre and Dance Department—has given it a radically theatricalized, nonrealistic, surrealistic, avant-garde staging that diminishes whatever it’s saying by drawing attention away from content to style.
Tompa designed the set and lights, while also being responsible for the sound and original music. Elisa Benzoni did the costumes. The set looks exactly like a photography studio’s white floored, white-walled background. There’s no furniture, so people sit on the floor. A small, digital camera on a tall tripod sits at one corner. The lighting casts the actors’ looming shadows on the wall, while the ominous sounds and original music are coupled with an eclectic mix of classical selections and modern ones.
|Julia Ubrankovics. Photo: Simion Buia.|
In one scene, for example, Shari, dressed in a form-fitting nurse’s uniform (suggesting sexual role-playing more than humanitarian relief), lays out dozens of plastic baby dolls on the floor; she proceeds to tear the heads off each of them. As she does so, she changes her voice back and forth in a nightmarish conversation between “Mom” and “Dad,” explaining to her remembered younger self (who Dad acknowledges doesn’t know English) that they’re taking her sister away to America.
|Julia Ubrankovics, Tunde Skovran. Photo: Mihaela Marin.|
In another scene, the women fill translucent plastic bags with air, don them as panniers (rather cleverly, by the way), place larger plastic bags over them to create the appearance of old-fashioned wedding dresses, and put on ugly, black wigs. As music is heard, they express their joy (at their reunion, one imagines, although it’s anybody’s guess) either by using bicycle pumps to try inflating a black garbage bag that is replaced by their dummy bridegroom or dancing around like asylum inmates.
|Julia Ubrankovics, Tunde Skovra. Photo: Simion Buia.|
Assuredly, there are metaphorical explanations that exist for the women’s experiences and relationship, and one could even assume that Shari/Madonna and Clara/Fatma are projections of a single personality. These, however, are irrelevant when you’re watching a play that seeks to evoke awareness of and sensitivity to dilemmas concerning immigration, war, violence, and family disruption.
This isn’t to say some won’t find the production and its subject engrossing, and even comprehensible. But for those who find themselves wishing even a 50-minute running time were shorter, it’s not likely they’ll want to spend more time trying to find a cerebral explanation for what should be a visceral response.
59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St, NYC
Through November 26