By Adam Langer
A few years ago I was living in Berlin during a summer marked by rallies against foreigners and occasionally violent xenophobic acts. Visiting a settlement camp for Kurds, Palestinians, Armenians, and members of other nationalities seeking political asylum in Germany, I saw children in all stages of adaptation to the culture. Some were good-humored youngsters who delighted in digging about in the mud for snails while others were more weepy, especially one girl who kept crying because her mother was in the hospital--volunteering, as it turned out, and so wouldn't be home until suppertime.
The children's fluency in German varied, but there was one phrase almost all of them seemed to have mastered: Hilfe! Hilfe! Ich bin Auslander ("Help! Help! I am a foreigner"). They yelled it at each other as they played cops and robbers; one would pretend to shoot another, who would raise his or her hands and plead for compassion on the basis of refugee status. They thought it was funny, giggling as they said it, but the truth beneath their words was disturbing and profound: though they'd only just arrived and many were no more than seven, they already understood their status as outsiders and how dangerous that might be.
David Greig's Europe--a play about two wandering refugees, Katia and Sava, her father--could take place almost anywhere in Europe, a reality underscored by the title and the fact that Greig never names the town or the country where his play is set. Two key characters the refugees encounter--one an opportunistic black marketer, the other a disgruntled unemployed worker--are called Morocco and Berlin respectively, suggesting that Greig is trying to give his play an international scope. And the supporting characters feature a melting pot of names: Adele, Horse, Billy, Fret. The Scottish-born Greig's drama brings to mind the conflicts between refugees and right-wing thugs in any number of cities, countries, or continents; Mary-Arrchie Theatre has chosen to set its production on the Macedonian border during the recent war in Kosovo.
The play suggests that Katia (Deborah Puette), a guarded young woman, was raped by the invading forces that drove her and her father from their homeland; Sava (Richard Cotovsky) is a world-weary but honorable man who feels responsible for what happened to his daughter. As the play opens, they're asleep in a recently shuttered train station; as one character observes, a train station "is a place to finish a journey as well as to start." The station has two employees: Fret (Eamonn McDonagh), a vodka-swilling blowhard who's a stickler for regulations, and Adele (Beata Swederska), a lonely dreamer. She's stuck in a loveless relationship with the villainous Berlin (Matt Yde), whose violent acts and xenophobic sentiments only get worse as the friendships between Adele and Katia and between Fret and Sava deepen. Eventually Berlin and his oafish drinking buddy, Horse (Scott Baker), erupt into drunken outbursts of violence that are terrifying in their cruelty and plausibility.
The play's unnamed city is marked by increasing lawlessness. Passports and identification papers are available only to those who bribe smugglers with sex or some other commodity. Acts of violence go unchecked--the police are never seen, and there's no suggestion that they have much influence anyway. The closest thing to an authority figure is the frequently drunken Fret, who holds forth on the dangers of anarchy but is completely ineffectual. A mortal conflagration near the end of the play seems inevitable. "The system," Adele says, "is collapsing."
Yet the playwright's primary interest is in the plight of the refugees. Unmoored from their homeland, unwanted in any place they arrive, Katia and Sava bring to mind Hitler's infamous "voyage of the damned": he sent a boatful of Jews across the Atlantic just to prove that they were unwanted anywhere. "The place I came from isn't there anymore--it disappeared," Katia tells Adele. "It's the same place, isn't it?" Adele responds, trying to reassure Katia that she still has a home somewhere. "There's no way of checking," Katia says.
As Katia and Adele begin to fall in love, and Berlin begins to succumb to a murderous rage, the question guiding Greig's play is whether the refugees will find a means of escape before the ethnic hatred embodied by Berlin and Horse engulfs them. By the close of the play, Katia and Sava have reached diametrically opposed ends suggesting two possible directions for Europe's future--an ever more violent dystopia or a society of compromise brought about by unlikely alliances. Horse and Berlin's increasingly hateful actions are juxtaposed with the emerging romance between Katia and Adele, who sit across from each other in a train car romantically intoning the names of the cities where they might find peace and happiness.
Greig's thoughtful play is obviously topical. And despite rambling passages and some unnecessary didactic and expository dialogue, the characters are surprisingly complex. Berlin is no two-dimensional murdering Nazi rapist-arsonist, though that's how his rap sheet could truthfully read: he begins the play as a hot-tempered worker who embraces racism largely because he's lost his job--the same way many a Nazi began his career. And Adele, who at first seems a wallflowerish dreamer seeking a way out, is consistently surprising yet perfectly plausible in the choices she makes.
By setting Europe on the border between Macedonia and the former Yugoslavia, director Jeremy Wechsler provides a drama as immediate as last month's headlines. But that choice also undercuts the production, requiring all the actors to speak in superfluous Eastern European accents, though Greig's dialogue has a rather British feel. Moreover, the actors deliver their accents with varying degrees of success: one seems to lapse occasionally into a brogue, either an indication of how difficult this dialect is to master or an ingenious reminder of Greig's pan-Europeanism. One doubts it's the latter.
But the performances Wechsler coaxes from his cast are generally strong, particularly Swederska's forceful, sympathetic take on Adele and Kyle Hamman's brief but convincing appearance as a friend of Horse and Berlin who becomes disgusted by their prejudices. But perhaps the most effective element of Mary-Arrchie's production is Heather Graff and Patrick Kerwin's set, which shines a rotating light through some movable slats to represent passing trains--subtly suggesting the chance for escape that in a refugee city is always either approaching or leaving someone behind.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.