Those Who Forget the Lessons of History/Sing for Me, Naxhie | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Those Who Forget the Lessons of History/Sing for Me, Naxhie


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Raven Theatre

Let's face it, the Nazis were the nadir of 20th-century evil. Pol Pot could exterminate millions of Cambodians, white Afrikaners can treat Africans as virtual slaves in their own land, and Latin American dictators can abuse and oppress their people every day--but no one quite compares to Adolf Hitler and his agents of death. Most of us--whether politically left or right, religious or secular, conservative or progressive, straight or gay--can agree that their evil was unqualified. Everybody knows the Nazis, and everybody hates the Nazis.

This consensus is convenient for artists and activists who need to make a point about other causes. To underscore the terror they feel, Palestinians tortured by the Israelis compare Israeli tactics to Nazi tactics. Gays imprisoned in the 1960s in Cuban "reeducation" camps refer to them as concentration camps. Fascism as exemplified by the Nazis has become a form of political shorthand. It's a lot easier to drag out the Nazis and say, "This is what it's like--now we all understand," than to tell the contemporary story. It's the perfect us versus them dynamic.

Yet in artistic terms this consensus has a paradoxical effect. It can render Hitler cartoonish, and turn his hateful philosophy into a trite, predictable manifesto. Ultimately, comparisons to Nazi Germany are so common that they become meaningless: comparing black South Africans, Southeast Asian boat people, the Kurds, or any other legitimately fucked-over people to the Nazis' victims doesn't address the individual horror at hand--but it does diminish the real, unique evil of World War II.

I'm not suggesting that Hitler should be left to rest or his crimes forgotten. I'm suggesting that sometimes the relationship between his particular brand of hell on earth and other instances of contemporary human injustice or suffering are tenuous at best. So that when Raven Theatre juxtaposes Those Who Forget the Lessons of History . . . , with its strutting Nazi sympathizer, and Sing for Me, Naxhie, which concerns the tensions between Serbs and Albanians, the former almost destroys the very passionate and complex politics of the latter.

Laura Raidonis's Those Who Forget the Lessons of History . . . , a very short one-act showcase for actor Tim Philbin as composer Richard Wagner, is certainly stirring and ironic in many ways, but it does little to add to--and much to confuse--the issues raised by Sing for Me, Naxhie, written by Raidonis and her husband Allan Bates. Philbin is certainly up to the task of playing the chauvinistic Wagner, intoxicated with his own "Germanness." The play certainly makes its point about hate's relationship to fear, and it doesn't shy away from pointing out both the specificity of hate and its random consequences. But ultimately Those Who Forget the Lessons of History . . . has a black-and-white message: We know every step of the way who the enemy is, who the victims are, and where we stand on the matter.

Sing for Me, Naxhie is grayer and darker. Two American playwrights, Victoria and John (played by Elaine Rivkin and Matt Robison), travel to Kosove, Yugoslavia, for the premiere of one of her plays, a nonpolitical piece about Edgar Allan Poe. On the way they meet a warm, likable Serbian priest who warns them about the intentions of their Albanian friends, telling them that the Serbs are being run out of their own land by the Albanians, that peace between the two groups is impossible.

Of course Victoria and John's Albanian friends--the translators and other intellectuals who are producing her play--feel quite differently. They protest that the Serbs, whose government rules Kosove, oppress them with martial law, suppress their culture and language, and even kill them.

For Victoria and John, the experience is dizzying. For one thing, they are forced to learn about a conflict they had no notion even existed: Kosove is traditionally Serb, but the Albanian majority there, whose roots go back further than the ancient Greeks, have little or no control over their own lives. John and Victoria listen to and are sympathetic to both sides, but they're also scared of both groups.

During the course of their night in Kosove, after Victoria's play is shut down by the Serbian authorities before it even opens, they experience martial law, armed militia outside their doors, and the possibility that their friends will disappear or die. The night turns hellish, and they are powerless to do anything about it.

When at one point Victoria suggests that she and John can return to the U.S. and tell the real story of the Albanian-Serbian conflict, and perhaps help bring about a resolution, one of her hosts--Shaqir, played by William P. Bannon--gently tells her to simply go home. The situation is beyond the comprehension of outsiders.

While the play ultimately sides with the Albanians, it doesn't shortchange the Serbs' suffering. Even the erudite Ilir, the translator who brought Victoria's writing to local attention, insults the Serbs out of sheer prejudice. The conflict is so ingrained in the culture that hate is omnipresent.

Impotent before the deadly tensions, Victoria and John are forced to consider that the Serb priest may have been right: there can be no peace. It's not a happy conclusion, not a tidy, hopeful way to end a story, but its truth is reflected in today's headlines about ethnic wars in Yugoslavia.

Sing for Me, Naxhie is performed in English, Albanian, and Serbian. The actors, all Americans, were coached in the different languages for weeks. Although native Albanian and Serbian speakers may find the actors' speech accented, the effect for the rest of us is convincing enough. Dan Rivkin, who plays Gani, the would-be director of Victoria's plays, didn't have a single line in English, but his performance was so splendid that all that was necessary was understood. Naxhie, the title character and Ilir's wife, also spoke mostly in Albanian. The tension created by the language switching helped underscore Victoria and John's disorientation, and made complete their--and our--unsettling "otherness" in this faraway land.

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