Parentheses of Blood by French-Congolese playwright Sony Labou Tansi wraps up the semester at the Indiana University Department of Theatre and Drama in a dramatic production directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe.
As the play opens a family is gathering in an open courtyard in the center of the Wells-Metz Theatre. There are a few cubes that function as seats, tables and even rostrums, but the only fixed feature is a small wooden cross in a corner. It’s the grave of the slain freedom fighter Libertashio presided over quite possessively by a character called The Fool, James Moffatt.
The thematic focus of Parentheses of Blood is the ironic mindlessly inhuman cruelty of rigid totalitarianism. Soldiers arrive on a mission to kill Libertashio and the fact of his death will not deter them. As a leader becomes convinced that Libertashio is dead and their mission is pointless his second in command shoots him. This happens twice, but the third leader played by Henry McDaniel is more resilient.
Under his leadership Libertashio’s nephew played by Shewan Howard is cruelly tortured through confession to abject terror and finally denial. Then all the family are condemned to death, but the execution is delayed as strange last requests are formally sought and honored. One asks not to be killed, a second asks for five minutes to make up her mind, a third demands that she be married to the soldier leader.
A fashionably antique costumed French couple Ben Schillmoeller and Amelia Vanderbilt arrive and are swept into the madness as the man demands to be married to one of the women and the wife mixes in as well. With echoes of the theme of European conquerors debauched by their conquest there’s a weirdly formal wedding ceremony and dance.
In what seems like a second act the action stops as the party ends and the condemned lie around and speculate on whether they are alive or dead and what that means. Frankly, it drags on as they chat and conclude that life is a parentheses opened by a man and closed by god. Then, dramatically it turns out that they are in fact still alive. Word comes from central headquarters that Libertashio is in fact dead all are pardoned and peace should reign.
However, this would violate the twisted logic of Sony Labou Tansi’s play. The soldiers reject the change; massacre the messenger and the family in a spectacularly staged blood bath and march off to continue their mission.
What’s strange to me about the play as its realized by director Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe and her actors is that the tone throughout is always on the edge of things. It’s on the edge of comedy, on the edge of realism and even on the edge of theatre of cruelty. It’s a strangely interesting mix and the final feel is a bit as if the Midwest met Euro-African sensibility and the result is something like a grim Monte Python.
Parentheses of Blood by Sony Labou Tansi continues with performances in the Wells-Metz Theatre Tuesday through Saturday, December 17-21.
You can find this review and an interview with the director and three actors on our web site at WFIU dot ORG.
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker.
Parentheses of Blood by Sony Labou Tansi
Directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe
Indiana University, Wells-Metz Theatre
December 4-5, 17-21, 2009