October 25 Syracuse Stage: Scorched

Photo by Michael Davis

Photo by Michael Davis

Syracuse Stage’s ‘Scorched’ an emotional journey through tragedy that will leave you feeling whole

In the process of self-discovery a pair of twins rip open old wounds to learn the truth about their mother — and ultimately, themselves

By Malkiel Choseed

Scorched is an intense and moving play that explores a variety of themes: love, friendship, the impact of violence from one generation to the next, and the power of truth.  To its credit, the play does not fall prey to sentimentality or to cliché.  Yes, truth has the power to set you free.  But in this play it also has the power to wound to the core and put you on your knees.

The drama begins in front of a sparse stage, with Monsieur Alphonse Lebel (Tuck Milligan) speaking directly to the audience.  He invites us into his notary office and tells us about his relationship with Nawal.  After a few minutes, the perspective changes and two other actors come onstage.  Lebel, it turns out, is talking to a set of twins, Janine (Soraya Broukhim) and Simon (Dorien Makhloghi), about the puzzling last will and testament of their recently deceased mother who had remained completely silent for the last five years of her life.

Each child has been left a letter sealed in an envelope, and an object (a red notebook with a weathered jacket labeled “72”) that holds some as yet undiscovered meaning for both mother and children.  Janine must deliver her letter to her father, who she thought had died years ago.  Simon must deliver his letter to a brother he never knew existed.  The opening of the last will and testament sets into motion a series of events culminating in a journey across time and space — physical, emotional and spiritual — for this brother and sister and, by extension, the audience.

Given the temporal, spatial and emotional shifts of the play, Scorched is a tough play to watch and to stage.  Director Marcela Lorca (Caroline, or Change) arranges her nine actors to populate the sparsely decorated stage with 22 separate characters.  Each actor (with the exception of Nadine Malouf) plays at least two characters.  Leopold Lowe plays four.  The choices made by Lorca and casting director Harriet Bass are intriguing in and of themselves.  This sort of doubling has a long tradition in Western drama, going as far back as the first theatre troops, and is often done for practical (and economic) reasons.  The casting choices in this production draw connections between the various characters, as well as the plot points and themes the characters are working through.

Kenya Brome (Sawda) and Nadine Malouf (Nawal) deserve special mention not just for their acting skills but for also their singing skills.  These actors use their voices throughout the play in hauntingly beautiful ways, adding emotional depth and resonance to several scenes.  Tuck Milligan (Lebel) and René Millán (Nihad) offer much needed comic relief during this gut-wrenching play.  Yet while the acting was on the whole quite good, several of the supporting actors dropped their lines at the opening night performance.  Not enough perhaps to shatter the mood that the play works so hard to build, but enough to be noticed.

The present Syracuse Stage production succeeds in managing the formidable difficulties this play presents.  Lorca handles the flashbacks, crowds, quick jumps through time and scene changes with a deft hand.  The fact that the action appears seamless and unfolds logically is a testament to the skill not only of the actors but also the direction and production staff.

For a serious drama such as Scorched, the music, costumes and sets need to work as a cohesive ensemble to connect the action and dialogue to the play’s emotional appeal to the audience. The musical score, performed by the world-famous Kronos Quartet, does just that — complementing the work of the actors and highlighting the suspense of the drama.

Before the lights came up, as the audience was filing in, the looped score sounded oddly reminiscent of the opening theme to the suspense-filled television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette).  Surely this is more than a coincidence.

The costuming, a mix of contemporary Western and Middle Eastern garb painted in a subtle and muted color palate of reds and browns, helps the audience keep track of the various characters —which considering the multiple roles of the actors is most helpful.

The minimalist sets are simple, practical and movable, and underscore the highly stylized nature of this production.  Two tall and bare trees, each made of boughs lashed to one another with heavy rope, frame the stage.  Occasionally, a picture or backdrop is projected onto the back curtain to enhance the mood and give the audience sense of place.  The abstract nature of the staging helps navigate the viewer through the taxing emotional experiences within the play.

The difficulty in staging this play extends beyond the technical issues.  Advertisements for Scorched describe it as a “thriller.”  This may be true in the sense that the play moves quickly, carrying the audience along a journey whose hints and bits of information crescendo to a climax.  But Scorched is hardly a “thriller” in the traditional sense of the word, and if you go expecting one you are likely to be disappointed.

It is clear that Mouawad looked to ancient Greek tragedy for inspiration.  The characters’ journeys of self-discovery and the types of truths they discover could have come from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.   What is important about this play for the audience is not that a mystery gets solved, although this does happen.  What is important about this play, and what ultimately makes it worth seeing, is the emotional journey through tragedy that these characters go through.  True, they emerge battered and bloodied at the other side.  But they emerge whole — perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Some truths are so terrible that they can destroy a person, a family or a country.  In the process of learning the truth of their identities the twins rip open old wounds, exposing almost inconceivable horrors.  In learning the truth about their mother, and ultimately about themselves, Janine and Simon are able to finally understand and accept her.  In this way, the play touches on a universal theme: “Who am I?”  Sometimes knowing is more devastating than not.  Truth can, however, redeem — if not heal.  It is this redemption motive that defines the true power of Scorched.

As beautiful and moving as this play may be, it has its share of problems that cannot be overlooked.

Part of this has to do with the writing itself, which is translated from the French.  Among the lines that do not seem to translate especially well into English is when one grieving character tells another she can “begin to swallow her saliva now.”  Maybe this was poetic in the original French, but to an English-speaking person it may sound rather strange.  The play is full of lines like that.  Simon, the male twin, is an amateur boxer who cannot win a fight.  His sister, Janine, is a mathematician who studies unsolvable problems (heavy-handed symbolism, to say the least).  Some of the dramatic disclosures and pieces of eviden
ce seem to come out of nowhere, and could have been handled more adroitly by the playwright.

These minor difficulties, however, are not enough to derail what is overall a successful and moving production.

Details Box:
WhatScorched, written by Wajdi Mouawad with translation by Linda Gaboriau, directed by Marcela Lorca
Who: Syracuse Stage
Where: Archbold Theatre, Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed
:  Friday October 25, 2013

Remaining dates
: Plays through November 10

Length: About 2 hours and 45 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $30-$52; $18 children under 18 and SU students; $35 under 40
Information: Call (315) 443-3275 or http://syracusestage.org
Family guide
: Adult language, disturbing themes, violence