Without Subtitles and Flood | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Without Subtitles and Flood 

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Without Subtitles, Playwrights' Center, at Loyola University Chicago, Kathleen Mullady Memorial Theatre, and Flood, Alchymia Theatre. As a prisoner in a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia, playwright Jeroen Brouwers experienced the horrors of World War II firsthand. After the liberation of Indonesia in 1945, Brouwers's family settled in the Netherlands, and his experiences as a survivor and immigrant in postwar Europe have continued to inform his work. Holland's wartime policy of neutrality and the aftermath of that policy form the moral crux of his 1969 drama Without Subtitles, as matriarch Agnes Barens scolds family members for buying birthday presents from "Nazi sympathizers."

Presented here in its English premiere, Without Subtitles uses a style not uncommon among Brouwers's European contemporaries: the characters' actions and dialogue are grounded in day-to-day rituals, but the script lapses in and out of reality. It may be that Agnes (Betty Scott Smith in an exceptional performance) is losing her grip on sanity--or that she's the only one willing to remember the atrocities of war while the rest of her family is seduced by the gray glow of the television set. Sorin Brouwers's staging retains this ambiguity, but his deft direction and the cast's mesmerizing performances bring home the words of a multitude of Holocaust survivors: "We must forgive, but we can never forget."

Like Without Subtitles, Günter Grass's 1955 absurdist drama Flood, set in Germany, offers a pointed rumination on the aftermath of World War II. Beneath Grass's broad archetypal characters and plot is a theme that's no less sweeping: forgetting to remember and remembering to forget. Many of the best aspects of Alchymia's production last year--the terrific ensemble work and Andrei Onegin's off-kilter, abstract set design--have been preserved, but Scott Fielding's direction has taken a turn for the worse: gratuitous simulations of sex and masturbation seem awkward additions to a play that makes its deepest statements through subtext.

--Nick Green

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