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Family Stories: A Slapstick Tragedy logo
Danielle Skraastad and Emma Bowers
in Family Stories: A Slapstick Tragedy
The North American premiere of Family Stories: A Slapstick Tragedy by the young Serbian playwright Biljana Srbljanovic is creating a stir at Cambridge's Market Theater. Translated into English by Rebecca Ann Rugg and performed with rapid-fire, grim humor, the play features adult actors as children playing house. The children mimic the violent language, domestic brutality, and ethnic fears of their unseen parents, revealing an environment capable of sustaining bitter civil war.

Three "children" burst onto Jeff Cowie's brilliant set, which represents a Belgrade suburb's crumbling concrete, steel girders, rubble, tires, dumpster, and broken discards. Milena (Danielle Skraastad) is the pretend mother, Vojin (Brandon Miller) acts the father, and Andrija (Corey Behnke) gets stuck with being the angry, much-abused child. Into their lives crawls a shell-shocked, dumb, twitching orphan (Nadezda, affectingly played by Emma Bowers) who thinks she's a dog and is treated like one.

In evoking childhood, the mute dog girl is the most believable. Moreover, her increasing trust and final revelation provide the play's momentum and unify the separate family stories, all the games of make believe. Those games all end with apparent death (by arson, gunshot, beating, broken heart). They provide a disturbing cumulative effect but no progression. The revelation of Nadezda's true family story enriches the craziness, offering poignancy and insight at last.

With momentary exceptions (most frequently from Behnke), the three actors who invent the games never truly become children. The audience sees adults pretending to be children pretending to be adults. Although it is true that kids parrot parental talk, the youngsters of Family Stories seem implausibly to be thinking up the concepts themselves; their voices are deep, adult voices. In fact, it isn't clear at first whether the characters are disturbed grownups or actual children. (The father comes out with statements like "I made him, so I can kill him if I want; he's my own flesh and blood" and "The smart man should never say what he thinks...Sounding off is a danger. It's an opportunity to get into trouble.") It might have helped if the dress-up clothes had swum on the actors rather than almost fitting them, but confusion would still be caused by the adult level of discourse.

At one point, worn out from reenacting black-market deals, sex, killings, beatings, job loss, bereavement, political demonstrations, and emigration, the children recount their dreams from the previous night as they listlessly pop anti-depressants. Here, they seem a bit more natural, and their dreams are telling: fear of attending a math contest in the enemy territory of Croatia, fear of being drafted and having to fight people on a neighboring street, etc.

Playing house: Corey Behnke, Danielle Skraastad,
and Brandon Miller in Family Stories: A Slapstick Tragedy
Although Srbljanovic's re-creation of an adult world through children's eyes is not quite successful, it is interesting. And one could make the case that American theatergoers are too ignorant of Serbians to recognize a joke: A European audience might take for granted that the actors aren't portraying absurdist Serbian adults or morally ambivalent Mother Courage types. The ambitious playwright (based in New York City for a year) has tackled a serious and universal theme in exploring the ways that violence and fear in the home sustain communal violence and warfare. She does this creatively, emerging as a talent to watch.
Annie Doresen directed the production, Matthew Richards has coordinated his evocative lighting with sound designer Jonah Rapino's startling blasts and Serbian radio soundtrack. Miguel Angel Huidor has come up with the children's dress-up clothes. Family Stories runs 90 minutes without intermission and continues through May 19; a free panel discussion on today's Serbia will be held in conjunction with the show on May 5 at 8:30pm.

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