This is a show of such opposites that it is exhilarating and numbing all at the same time. Hate/love, forgiveness/revenge, pain/surcease, brutality/kindness, despair/hope, beauty/ugliness. In a very taut 95 minutes, the script explores enough contradictions in this meditation on what will humanity leave in its wake that it leaves you breathless.
‘Masterpieces’ is the type of theatre one longs for—it shakes you up and leaves you incoherent with grief and hope and determination.
“Masterpieces” (as it henceforth shall be known in this review) is a beautifully written, complicated piece of theatre produced in Signature’s smaller black box, the ARK. Set in a near-ruin of a museum, it is the story of three women colliding—the art restorer, Layla (a glorious Holly Twyford), the female soldier trying to bend her to the military’s will, Mitra, (an unnerving Felicia Curry), and the Muslim “nurse,” Nadia (a driven Yesenia Iglesias).
Set in a dystopian future, the world has been at war for 100 years. Layla was giving a lecture in the damaged museum, and musing on the rhino that has taken up residence in a hall of porcelain when she is run down and captured by Mitra. Nadia was visiting a friend in the hospital when she was mistaken for a nurse and kidnapped. Mitra has orders to force Layla to restore a Rembrandt painting of the two Marys’ toiling up to Christ’s tomb on the third day. Layla resists this and Mitra, hardened by a short lifetime of nothing but war and brutality, seeks to force her. Nadia has been kidnapped to act as Layla’s nurse—to try to keep her undamaged enough to try to restore the painting. Much of what remains of the museum is a prison and the screams and groans of the tortured echo as a backdrop to the battle among the three women. The setting is so realistic that when the sounds of bombs hitting targets occur and the dust falls from the ceiling and things rattle, you almost feel the ARK shake.
The show becomes a grim meditation on what should be saved—what is worth saving? Is it only that which has been deemed valuable such as Michaelangelo’s Pieta, the Greek statue of a goddess, paintings and books? Does anything else matter, such as memories, a child’s shoe, a wedding band, an Elvis Presley record? Who decides? Who will care?
Holly Twyford is stunning as Layla; she is vulnerable and defiant and angry and ironic and caring. She still has a vestige of a sense that it matters how ends are achieved. Nadia has no such compunctions at this point—she wants to escape before they find out she’s not really a nurse, and therefore not useful, and find her daughter, a primal need that will drive her to acts of brutality. Iglesias takes this character and gives her a strength to break free of customary societal and religious restraints that is unnerving.
As Mitra, Curry has a physicality that embodies the brutality and unyielding arc of her character. When she is ambushed by the other two and injured, her lashing out is terrifying and you can see the audience visibly drawback. It is a storm of a performance.
Don’t think that because the focus is on three women that somehow the horror of all-out war will be softened. When Mitra smashes a rock on Layla’s hand, the scream and crumpling to the floor made the hairs on my neck stand up. This is a brutal time and these women are all warriors in their way.
And then, after Nadia strips Mitra of her uniform and makes her bid for escape, Layla does the unexpected. The Rembrandt to be restored has been brought in, and Layla has drawn to it, against her will; her visceral need to restore the beauty is at war with the pointlessness of such an action, and the tension is evident in her words and her dragging gait and sidelong glances. It is at this point, she forges a connection with Mitra—and a way to save Mitra’s, and her own, life. It is a transcendent moment.
But before that happens, the pieces of paper upon which audience members have been asked to write what would they save (this was during Layla’s opening lecture) and which had been collected by “museum staff” come drifting down as the bombing escalates. This cache from heaven, as it were, offers some hope as Layla gathers and reads from them, while Mitra slowly straightens and listens.
“Masterpieces” is the type of theatre one longs for—it shakes you up and leaves you incoherent with grief and hope and determination.
The set, designed by James Kronzer, is a wonder of gray and grit and grime and destruction. It is permanently in a twilight (terrific lighting design b Sherrice Mojgani) as if the unceasing desolation of an endless war has blocked out the sun itself. Kudos to fight choreographer Robb Hunter—these are women, but they aren’t dainty—they will destroy to survive and the physical action is dynamic. Nadia Tass directs this dream cast in taut, boundary-stretching performances. The 90 minutes passes quickly and so intense is the drama, it’s almost a relief. Heather McDonald has written a sublime work that takes no prisoners and asks, pretty directly, is this the direction that humanity wants to go in? It’s a wake-up call. And Signature does it full justice in this world premiere production.
Advisory: Adult language. Violence; abrupt, loud noises.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes with no intermission.
“Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity,” runs from February 26 – April 7, 2019, Signature Theater, Arlington, VA. For more information, please click here.