No Man's Land

How a war plays out within individual lives — and entire nations

It's been more than a decade since the Bosnian War ended. But like all major human traumas, repercussions from the fighting among Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims — which left more than 100,000 people dead and close to 2 million displaced between 1992 and 1995 — will be felt for a long while. Two weeks ago, Bosnia's war crimes court launched its first genocide trial of 11 Serbs charged over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslims. Meanwhile, reports about terrorist groups' current attempts to recruit disaffected, Bosnia-based “white Muslims” who might be able to blend more easily into western cities and execute attacks have put intelligence units throughout Europe and the U.S. on high alert.

The idea that war can touch entire nations as well as individuals far beyond the time and geography of any specific conflict enshrouds French playwright Fabrice Melquiot's drama Le Diable en Partage, receiving its American premiere under the title The Devil on All Sides. Melquiot's depiction of the ravages of the Bosnian War — as seen through the eyes of a Serbian military exile — presents a view of conflict that is as personal as it is universal.

In this dense and disturbing play, which was hailed as the “Theatrical Discovery of the Year” and “Best French Language Play of the Year” by the National Dramatic Critics' Syndicate in France when it premiered in 2003, a young man forced to fight on the Serbian side in the Bosnian War flees to France. Living on the fringes of society, unable to blend in with his new surroundings yet unwilling to return home for fear of being court-martialed and shot, Lorko Ljevic exists on a spectral plane, somewhere between solitude and community, heaven and hell.

While this modern Odysseus spends his time conversing with the phantoms of his loved ones — his Muslim wife Elma, younger brother Jovan, friend Alexander, and parents — life in the Bosnian town of Jajce limps on. Ljevic's preoccupied father scrawls in a notebook, in an attempt to create logic out of unfathomable events; his mother, a compulsive knitter, tries to patch bullet holes with yarn bandages; and Elma, adopted by the family since her marriage to Lorko, drifts around in stoic acceptance of her husband's disappearance, alternately helping his mother with the housework and singing songs to assuage her pain. Only Jovan and Alexander seem enthusiastic about the war: After a day spent raping, killing, and pillaging in the name of “the great Serbian nation,” the two romp merrily home from the office to chug down steaming bowls of Mrs. Ljevic's bouillon. Even multiple war wounds fail to diminish the accident-prone Alexander's eagerness to fight.

The familial drama (peopled by sharply drawn characters scratching out an existence on the edge of reason) grounds the play in time and place. At the same time, Melquiot's affinity for the surreal and expressionistic, realized with equal amounts of control and exuberance by FoolsFURY's cast and production team, enables the play to resonate at a level common to all humanity. In one of the most startling scenes, for instance, Jovan — whose transformation from a kid who can't tie his own shoelaces to a ruthless killer is more terrifying than any act of violence in Devil — tells his exiled brother (played by the slender and ephemeral Rod Hipskind) in a dream about a recurring vision he has. In the vision, Jovan says, angels walk around a ruined landscape with two bloodied holes in their backs and a pair of plastic wings in their hands. Offset by Dan Stratton's dilapidated set, made with shards of concrete held precariously together by knitted walls, and Chris Studley's fiercely woven hot scarlet and cold blue lights, actor Brian Livingston's matter-of-fact delivery of Jovan's vision seems both larger-than-life and deeply real.

Director/translator Ben Yalom handles Melquiot's complex narrative structure in a similar way. As the play moves backward and forward through time, mixing domestic scenes in Jajce with surreal exchanges between Ljevic and the specters in his mind, the margins of Yalom's mise-en-scène flicker with activity. By presenting the main action center stage while keeping other actors in the shadows, the director finds an economical and fluid way to suggest the ordinariness of life continuing regardless of the destruction going on elsewhere, as well as Ljevic the outsider's hyper-real view of events at home. In so doing, Yalom may have found an ideal way to frame the playwright's alchemical, nonjudgmental revelation of war — his notion of mankind as being both a stranger to conflict and implicated in it. “If there is a war in what I've written,” Melquiot said in a recent interview, “I wanted it tightrope-walkerlike, ghostly, always out of place. A war on the edge of the frame and inside of oneself, lurking in the shadows, and ready to explode, marking its territory with games that maim and break bones.”

Ultimately, it's that careful balance of opposing forces that makes The Devil on All Sides sing its personal-universal song. The jarring rhythms of everyday slang collide with moments of sublime lyricism; balletic physical theater contrasts with a more naturalistic performance style; tender moments of humor undercut unflinching descriptions of torture and death. Only the translation threatens to throw the balance off. In the original French, Melquiot's play carries a particular significance for an Anglophone — especially American — audience: Bastardized English-isms abound, from the nonsensical (Ljevic's fascination with the word “meeting”) to the straightforward (“Fuck you!”). These English words, which stand out in the French text and provide Devil with a subtle political commentary about the intervention of global powers in foreign conflicts, are simply lost in translation. Resolving such linguistic issues would have been a challenge, but the play's perspective suffers without a solution.

Nevertheless, for a nation like ours, The Devil on All Sides is moving and important: It speaks of our vulnerability as individuals, and of our limited understanding as a nation of the effects of human disaster. Yalom has also performed a great service by introducing U.S. audiences to Melquiot, none of whose plays (he's written some 30 to date) has ever been fully staged in this country until now. Here's hoping this production will be the first of many.

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