Reviewed by Michael J. Opperman and Juliette Cherbuliez
The blinding strobe pops periodically in After a Hundred Years, as if the whole audience were photojournalists. These repeated flashes sometimes mark the end of a scene, but they also suggest moments when the audience tries to understand the scene before it. This is the reigning conceit of "After A Hundred Years," which opened yesterday at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio as part of the Guthrie's Bush Foundation-funded New Play Program, and plays through the end of June. Naomi Iizuka's newest drama sets us as witnesses to a highly complex story - that of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge in today's Cambodia, and the broader political context of Western involvement in the South Asian Peninsula.
The play takes place in and around the capital city Phnom Penh. The time: Now. This time - the present, but also back then, during the time of the Killing Fields and perhaps also in the future. Thus the play's title, a quotation of an Emily Dickinson poem: "After a hundred years /Nobody knows the place, -/ Agony, that enacted there,/Motionless as peace." In the other two stanzas of the poem, strangers stroll through graves, and only the wind has the means to remember the past. Like Dickinson's evocation of a place steeped both in pain and sorrow, and in the failure of memory, "After A Hundred Years" brings together survivors of the Khmer Rouge, perpetrators, and American witnesses to the suffering in the impoverishment of today's Cambodia. What is the difference between the mass graves of the Killing Fields and the fate of a city with - as the play tells us many times - a population where over 50% of those tested for HIV are positive (according the NAPC)? This living out of history's presence - its refusal to go away, but its unfortunate tendency to return in new, more unsavory forms - is the driving force of the play.
When Luke (Peter Christian Hansen) has the opportunity to interview one of the last surviving members of the Khmer Rouge still refusing to disavow his political past (James Saito), he meets up with a college friend, Tim (Robert O. Berdahl) who is a doctor treating AIDS patients. Add to the cast Tim's wife Sarah (Stacia Rice) who has her own past, a middle-aged business woman and fortune teller, a teenage prostitute, and a blind musician, and the play succeeds, with a cast of only six actors, in suggesting a complex, multi-generation and international portrait of the problem of political guilt and survivor's memory.
Iizuka is known for works that tackle big subjects and render them human and personal, and this is the challenge of "After A Hundred Years." In many ways it succeeds: Mia Katigbak, James Saito and especially Robert O. Berdahl offer complex and nuanced performances of characters who straddle ethical and historical lines in order to survive. Everyone in this play has secrets, some vastly geo-political and some very personal. This might be the problem with Iizuka's script, that it too quickly parallels a genocide with an innocent accident, and asks the audience to parse the perpetrators' levels of responsibility. There are times in this script when glibness takes hold and platitudes abound, but perhaps for Iizuka we are full of cliches when it comes to history repeating itself, or being written by the victors, or about being at once political and personal. But when a character says, "Save your cliches for someone else" the audience's laughter was maybe more empathetic than it should have been. If director Lisa Portes doesn't always parse these clich_s as the tired platitudes that they are, Iizuka's might explain far too much, as if we might actually be able to solve the "mystery" of genocide and the legacy of multinational involvement.
With so many strong performances it is unfortunate that Peter Christian Hansen was both perfect for his part and fell so far short. Brimming with energy as Luke, a virile, single, American freelance journalist used to the war-torn experiences of reporting from Afghanistan and the Sudan, he is the center of our attention and the major source of our identification; his interloping in this foreign land with its deep, absolutely unexotic mysteries mirrors the audience's own position. But Hansen's performance lacked restraint and spiraled too quickly toward indignation at the network of injustices around him, whether past or present. In the end it was laughable that he would be a seasoned journalist whose stories could make a difference or capture "the truth," as characters kept saying. But Hansen's predicament - which may be a failing of the script and not of this actor or his director - is also the audience's: how do we make choices about our involvement in histories we hardly know, let alone understand?
For those who appreciate an attempt at rendering this kind of question both highly personal and exceedingly complex, "After A Hundred Years" will prove satisfying, if occasionally uneven. A beautiful set by Brian Sidney Bembridge with lighting by Marcus Dilliard highlighted the Dowling Theater's intimacy. When a stream of rice pours onto the stage we cannot help but be reminded of how precious, and beautiful, mere survival is. It is worth this reminder, in Minneapolis in a theater next to former flour mills, when the price of half the world's staple food is causing riots in South-East Asia and across the planet.
In conjunction with "After A Hundred Years," the Guthrie is also offering workshops on "Genocide and Justice" June 23 and June 28.