TUTA Theatre Chicago
Adulthood hasn't come easily to modern Serbia, torn by war since the early 90s and traumatized by the tyranny and violence of its leader, Slobodan Milosevic. The country was a wreck by the time the 21st century dawned, stumbling toward a modern democratic state. But unrest proved a spur to Serbian theater. Though the names of the playwrights working in that period--Nebojsa Romcevic, Biljana Srbljanovic, Maja Pelevic, Dimitrije Vojnov--have meant little here, TUTA Theatre Chicago has now mounted an impressive U.S. premiere of Ugljesa Sajtinac's 2004 play Huddersfield. And it plans to stage Milena Markovic's Tracks this fall.
Unexpectedly, Huddersfield's vitality does not spring from overt political engagement--it's a male coming-of-age domestic drama like Mike Leigh's Ecstasy or Eric Bogosian's SubUrbia. The crisis for the protagonist, Rasha, isn't NATO bombings or ethnic cleansing, it's turning 30. Serbian critic Ana Vujanovic points out that, like many of his contemporaries, Sajtinac excludes "every trace of metaphysics, utopia, historical necessity, or positive criticism." Sajtinac, who attended TUTA's opening, said in a postshow discussion, "I'm not writing about the big politics. I'm more interested in the decades of the 20s, years that a lot of guys waste." Still, it's easy to see parallels between Rasha's excruciating inability to grow up and the uncertain thrashings of Serbia in the 90s.
University dropout Rasha lives with his belligerent alcoholic father in a cramped apartment in the bankrupt industrial town of Zrenjanin. He makes a little money by tutoring horny 16-year-old Mila, who gets off showing him home movies of her parents having sex, and amuses himself with boyhood friend Ivan, who's emerged from years in mental institutions with a stash of powerful psychotropics and a newfound creed, Christian asceticism. But mostly Rasha abides by his motto: "Don't do anything." When two other 30-year-old friends, Igor and Doole, show up--Igor is on a visit from Huddersfield, England, where he now lives--the four of them hang out, drinking beer and smoking pot.
In Vujanovic's view, Sajtinac reduces life to "banal micro-stories." But Oprah-fied American audiences equate banal micro-stories with social truth, which gives Sajtinac's work an advantage here. More important, like Leigh and Bogosian, Sajtinac has a gift for slice-of-life dialogue that's hypernaturalistic in its repetitions and circularity yet carefully shaped to produce a desired result. Certain scenes seem to go on forever, especially Rasha and Mila's precoital gropings, but their accumulated weight helps dramatize the deadening routine of Rasha's life--and makes his final cruel degradation of his friends, when he becomes suddenly not only active but brutal, all the more shocking.
Under Dado's passionate, empathic direction, the six-member cast is extraordinary, creating intricate relationships full of believably human contradictions. Peter Defaria as Rasha's father opens the show by barking at his son, "For 30 fucking years you've been ragging on me, motherfucker." A spiteful domestic tyrant, he continues to berate him for five minutes, until Rasha gets up and hands him a set of car keys. Though Rasha's action is matter-of-fact, not threatening, it elicits a nearly imperceptible flinch from the father: the tyrant becomes a scared child. Everyone in the cast delivers this kind of carefully observed performance, given nuance not only by the characters' personal histories but by the growing lateness of the hour and the escalating consumption of beer and weed. Dado ends each scene with a sudden, artless dimming of the lights while her actors are in midsentence--life on this stage won't pause unless forced to. The production's only misstep is the addition of a violinist, who has no lines but appears in the scenes, occasionally providing tense accompaniment.
Sajtinac might have intended to avoid politics with Huddersfield, but it seeps in nonetheless, most overtly in Rasha's nihilism. He may be a classic Gen-Y delayed adolescent or the victim of an incurable broken heart, but he also lacks a national or spiritual identity to fall back on. Rasha argues that, with the Slavs' legacy of invasion by other countries, they've lost their pagan history and are now bumbling children without direction. The only gods the new "open society" offers him--money and antidepressants--are wholly inadequate. Doole and Igor represent alternate routes to identity: Doole is a low-level sales executive who's leaped headfirst into the country's nascent capitalism while Igor, who emigrated a decade earlier, has forged a new anglicized life.
Some might find this intermissionless, sometimes rambling, obscenity-laced evening tough going, but I'd argue it's worth the discomfort--a vivid, engaging experience that intertwines the personal and the political in innovative, enriching ways, illuminating what Sajtinac and his compatriots have experienced over the last 15 years. Compared to that, two hours in the theater is nothing.
When: Through 7/8, Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew Rothenberg.