- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Feeling snugly removed from life’s ugliness? Your sense of privilege will get a thorough thrashing in the bruising Canadian play “The Monument,” a North American premiere at the Theater Alliance that delivers, with a punch instead of a kiss, the message that “we are all dogs and slaves.”

Director John Vreeke never lets up on the tension, which starts the moment you enter the theater. In a rush for seats, you almost trip over the slim young man strapped to a gurney in front of the stage, nearly step over the woman in a head scarf glowering from one of the theater’s upper rows. Tattered women’s clothing has been tacked up haphazardly on the back wall.

The man is Stetko (Alexander Strain), a soldier from an anonymous country — although the accent and the songs sound vaguely Slavic — who has been tried and condemned to death for war crimes. The woman is Mejra (Jennifer Mendenhall), whose face is more frozen in granite than Mount Rushmore, an uncompromising proponent for justice. The clothes? They represent the 22 “enemy” women Stetko raped and killed, all in the line of duty, he insists.

Eyes lolling, body thrusting against the restraints, Stetko awaits his execution, detailing the rapes as if hesitating over a box of chocolates and debating whether to pick the caramel or nougat. Even on his deathbed, Stetko is still seized with bravado and delusion.

Those feelings quickly dissipate when Mejra appears at his side with an unusual proposition: either die at the hand of the executioner or come with her and do whatever she says for the rest of his life. He chooses the latter and becomes Mejra’s slave and punching bag. She chains him like a dog and inflicts robotic blows upon his face and body until he flinches out of instinct rather than pain.

The blows are both physical and psychological, as Mejra insists that Stetko put names, faces and personalities to the women he murdered. This grueling sequence recalls another local production, “Frozen” at Studio Theatre, where the mother of a slain child forces a serial killer to feel remorse as she pounds home the reality that her child suffered mightily at his hands. Mejra also plays mind games with her captive — similar to those to which he probably subjected his victims — by telling him cruel variations on what happened to his virginal girlfriend after his arrest.

By the end, the tough, braying persona has vanished as Stetko finally realizes the crushing weight of his acts. In a scene of unendurable anguish, he is on his knees in front of the dismembered bodies of the murdered, and he begins to describe the individual women in a gush of details that are both intimate and horrifying. Freed from his locked memory, these women can now be remembered by their loved ones and the world.

“The Monument” is not an easy play to watch. For 90 tense minutes, you may find yourself sitting in your seat like a coiled spring and briefly turning away from some of the images onstage. However, you cannot keep your eyes off Miss Mendenhall and Mr. Strain, who go way beyond the comfort zone in their portrayals of the accuser and the guilty. Miss Mendenhall wears her raggedy garb as if girded for battle, arms crossed and face set in a permanent grimace. Although relentless, her Mejra shows flashes of merciful gallows humor, which softens the stone edges.

Mr. Strain has shown us many sides in his previous impressive performances around town — seductive, authoritative, full of bluster — but as Stetko, he seems astonishingly young. Stripped of artifice and guile, he is all eyes, skin and bones, almost like a baby soldier, trained to obey and sate his primal needs like a greedy, uncaring infant.

The character of Mejra symbolizes the maternal figure, representing all mothers whose children were casualties of war, but there is nothing remotely nurturing about her. “War never takes into account the mothers,” she hisses, and if “The Monument” is any indication, the warmongers should reconsider. She is the mother of all avengers, a force for truth too powerful to take sides.

***

WHAT: “The Monument” by Colleen Wagner

WHERE: Theater Alliance, H Street Playhouse, 1635 H St. SE

WHEN: Running in repertory with “Two Rooms” through June 11.

TICKETS: $25

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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