Irene Christ (center) and company
in You Belong to Me: Death of Nations Part V
(© International WOW)
Irene Christ (center) and company
in You Belong to Me: Death of Nations Part V
(© International WOW)
At once abstract and visceral, You Belong to Me: Death of Nations Part V is a fascinating and surreally beautiful exploration of war and its social context, with a particular focus on violence, eroticism, and fantasy. The title also signifies the show's obsession with ownership -- of both property and people.

Presented by International WOW, the work is conceived and directed by the company's founder and artistic director Josh Fox, and created and performed by the actors. It's not necessary to have seen the preceding four parts of this series to enjoy this latest installment. In fact, even the three acts that make up this two-and-a-half hour performance are thematically linked, but tell separate stories.

Fox and company present a collage of striking images, fractured narrative, and sung sequences that make for a bold, original, and utterly compelling theatrical experience. The work begins with two company members -- Beth Griffith and Elizabeth Knauer -- vocalizing a series of loud, high-pitched notes that seem to create a wall of sound that reverberates through the entire theater.

As they sing, other actors enter, setting the stage for the first act, entitled "Belongings," which takes place in the American South at the end of the Civil War. A southern belle (Carrie Getman), her one-legged husband back from the war (Rory Sheridan), a man who gets hanged (Harold Kennedy German), a black female slave (Okwui Okpokwasili), and two other white men (Beau Allulli and Robert Saietta) who sexually dominate her, are the main characters.

Fox often has his actors looking directly at the audience, even when speaking to one another, which is effective, yet somewhat disconcerting. Additionally, at certain moments, performers separate from their characters, speaking about them in the third person. Some of the text borders on the melodramatic (and maybe even crosses over), but the actors are all so committed to the material that it never comes across as overwrought.

Set in Germany in 1945, the second act, "Heimwehen," is performed almost entirely in German, with English surtitles. My personal favorite of the evening, it is a darkly comic tale revolving around a German woman (Irene Christ) and her maid (Angelika Sautter). The action picks up shortly after the woman assisted the suicides (or perhaps murdered) her husband, her brother, and her lover, all of whom were Nazis. As she contemplates her own suicide, dramatically wielding an axe, she and the maid also anticipate the imminent arrival of American forces who they think may want to rape them. Complete with a high energy dance number involving the American G.I.'s, a couple of Holocaust survivors, and two valkyries, this absurdist piece is grounded by the riveting performance of Christ, who successfully conveys both the comic and tragic elements of the story.

The final segment of the play takes place in contemporary Germany, at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military hospital where injured American soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq are sent for treatment. Subtitled "The Plague of Fantasies," this section may also exist primarily in the fevered imagination of its protagonist, a veteran named Harold (German). Other patients are seen as polar bears, tigers, and sharks (set and costume design are by Petra Maria Wirth), all of whom are wheelchair-bound.

Harold, who does not want to return to America, has a conversation with a nameless woman (Getman), identified only as someone he left behind stateside. She delivers the most impassionate and directly political speech in the entire play. Speaking into a microphone, while underneath a burka that Harold has given to her, she rails against involving the entire world in personal fantasies of sex and power. The monologue brings together the way You Belong to Me disturbingly contemplates the intersections of death, desire, violence, and rape.