by Joyce Van Dyke
Directed by Rick Lombardo
Featuring Katarina Morhacova & Bobbie Steinbach
New Repertory Theatre
54 Lincoln St, Newton MA / (617) 332-1646
through Oct. 19th

Reviewed by Will Stackman

This script had a reading in the Graduate Playwriting program at B.U.. Then "A Girl's War" got a well-received workshop presentation directed by Shakespeare & Co.'s Michael Hammond featuring an impressive local cast at BPT. Now this play, begun in 1998, has moved up to a fully professional production as the New Repertory Theatre's season opener, even though is probably still "in development." Joyce Van Dyke, a Newton native and University lecturer whose maternal grandparents were Armenians living in California, refugees from the 1915 holocaust, has not created a study of the ongoing conflict between the Armenian and Azeri villagers in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Caucasus, but has fashioned an intriguing tale of age-old tribal rivalry, but a modern drama set against this background, with resonance with such conflicts across the globe.

She's accomplished this feat by creating unique intense characters, who've become very well rounded during the script's long gestation, Van Dyke's also worked closely with both directors, particularly with Rick Lombardo, to pare the work down to its essentials. Both productions have responded to the particular talents of the excellent local casts. The center of both has been award-winning character actress, Bobbi Steinbach, whose portrayl of a traditional Armenian matriarch, Arshaluis Sarkisian, who having lost both her sons in the conflict, now moonlights as a sniper. Steinbach, also from Newton, originated the role at BPT. Her daughter, however, is the catalyst for the action, and in the New Rep's version, has probably affected the script profoundly.

Czech-born Katarina Morhacova, trained in France and Czechoslovakia, is fully believable as a successful New York model, Anahid Sarkisian, just one of the "girls" strutting her stuff. Her accent is exquisitely Continental with just a touch of the Big Apple. Morhacova's background, having experienced the Velvet Revolution, and the split between the two states with one of highly educated parent Czech and the other Slovak, gives her personal experience no acting training could provide. She's a luminous modern woman, caught up in the traditional world of her peasant childhood, trying to make sense of family tragedy. Her intense scenes with Steinbach are riveting, and her fling with a former neighbor, her recently dead younger brother's best friend, an Azeri deserter, seems at once classic drama and ripped from the headlines.

As said deserter, Dan Domingues, whose Malcolm in this summer's CSC version of the Scottish play outdoors on the Boston Common was acceptable at best, is on a par with Morhacova in this play as Ilyas Alizade, a intense young man, a refugee camp survivor and a street hustler from the Azerbaijani capitol, Baku--or so he says. Van Dyke has made the mystery of his background pivotal to the action. The other man in Anahid's life is Stephen Wellington played by ART company member Benjamin Evett, seen at the New Rep last season as the lead in "Jerusalem." This role, her former lover, a fashion photographer, is probably the most changed since the workshop. The photographer's become British, though somewhat classless. As part of the plot, he follows her to Karabakh. Actually, he's been in Turkey participating in one of those "Day in the Life of..." projects, had a misadventure while snooping around the Iraqi border--the time for this play in Now--and headed north thereafter. Evett makes this rather sketchy character compelling. Further script development might draw this Brit further into the story. Perhaps he lost a relative in Northern Ireland, for example.

The part of Wellington's assistant, Tito Uccello, a gay Italian from New Jersey, is played by Mason Sand from Company One, a Brookline- based physical theatre group. This subservient role has also been developed, but could be even more integrated. Tito does move from comic relief in the opening to tragedy by the end. Perhaps he should be from a Sicilian family to bring in another regional conflict. Sand also plays the ghost of Ana's dead kid brother, Seryozha Sarkisian, which adds a bit of magic realism to the script but needs to be more allusive. Also if the role wasn't doubled, the character could participate in the climax.

Technical support at the New Rep continues to be strong. IRNE and Norton winning set designer Richard Chambers has created an abstract representation of the Sarkisian home, crudely repaired with plastic sheeting and scraps of corrugated roofing flanked by ancient grave markings, functions in the first scene as a photography background.Dan Meeker's lighting moves from realism to fantasy with ease. Denitsa Blitznakova, from Parson's and Brandeis has paid careful attention to costume detail, as the traditional overwhelms the modern in the course of the play. Haddon Kime has found the right balance between the sounds of civil war mixed with traditional and modern music.

Lombardo has taken this effective script, forged an ensemble from five very distinct actors, and given the play a pace which keeps the action humming along while the impending tragedy grows. This play is the best local example of script development involving various parts of the theatre community. When the company moves in a year or so to their new home at the Watertown Art Center being developed at the former Arsenal, it might be interesting to bring this play back in a few years, not only to see where Van Dyke has taken her award-winning work, but to get the reaction of that city's large Armenian population, a final part of its development.

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