BWW Reviews: SCORCHED reaches for tragedy, finds sadism
There is a marked difference between a tragedy and a wallow, and Scorched falls on the wrong side of that divide early and often. Syracuse Stage's production of Wajdi Mouawad's play skillfully renders its themes, but that's more to its detriment than to its credit when the play is question is this leaden and fundamentally dishonest.
Scorched follows Janine (Soraya Broukhim) and Simon (Dorien Makhloghi), the twin children of Nawal (Socorro Santiago), a Middle Eastern immigrant to Canada. The twins have a difficult relationship with their mother, whom they consider cold. When Nawal dies, her will stipulates that she be buried naked, facedown, and without a coffin, and that her children dump water upon her body and bury her without a headstone.
She also tasks her children to deliver a pair of letters to their father, whom they did not know was alive, and brother, whom they did not know even existed. Simon is furious, but Janine is compelled to travel to her mother's homeland and find the truth of her past (seen in flashbacks, with a younger Nawal played by Nadine Malouf).
Mouawad patterns Scorched after Greek tragedy (one in particular, although revealing which would give away much of the play), but he doesn't understand how tragedy works. It involves the downfall of a character by not only fate, but choice. Oedipus's fate might already have been decided, but it is he who chooses to murder his father and marry his mother, however unwittingly. In Antigone, Creon may be doomed to lose his family, but it is he who sentences Antigone to death, leading to the suicides of his wife and son.
In Scorched, the characters have no choice. For that element to be in play, the characters must have inner life. But the twins are defined by bitterness (Simon) and blankness (Janine), and Nawal is little more than a device to deliver human anguish. Instead of the plot proceeding naturally through action, the characters are mercilessly ground up in the narrative gears.
The threadbare nature of the characters doesn't give the actors much room to breathe. Makhloghi can only go for one-note petulance. Malouf, at her best, can't be much more than blandly dignified. Another character, Nihad (René Millián) is a cardboard psychopath until it's narratively convenient for him to change. Broukhim, whose character barely even has a trait, is saddled with some of the script's worst dialogue as she's forced to laboriously trot out mathematical concepts as symbols for how she views the world.
She's not the only character forced to deliver clunker lines. The script is filled with overwritten monologues that serve to state the play's thesis (that love can be borne from hatred) over and over again. The stilted language (sometimes heightened, sometimes not) defeats the poor performers at every turn. If you can find an actor who can deliver the line "You don't yet know the happiness that will be our downfall" without making it sound laughably portentous, you'll have found the greatest actor in the world.
Director Marcela Lorca does stage the play with flair: she makes great use of the space, and her transitions between scenes are always fluid, which helps some of the play's time-hopping go down more smoothly. Perhaps most memorable is the use of a trapdoor, surrounded by red earth, in a pair of funerals. Her vision of the play is vividly realized.
Unfortunately, that means that she also vividly realizes many Scorched's dumbest concepts, as she does with the embarrassingly literal projection of polygons on the stage to illustrate Janine's preoccupation with mathematics. And while the use of the gorgeous music of Kronos Quartet is deeply emotional in theory, it mostly serves to pile on to the risible heaviness on display. Lorca and company make strong, definite choices, but the play is too wretched for them not to be dragged down with it.
Mouawad has acknowledged that the play was at least partially inspired by the Lebanese Civil War, which he and his family fled from in 1977. It is important to wrestle with the difficulties of that conflict and with the horrible things that happened to its victims. No doubt the playwright wished to process the atrocities of the world through a tragic story so as to better comprehend it, perhaps even find hope in it.
It doesn't work. However unintentionally, Mouawad's play is without any genuine empathy for its characters. Their misery is wielded too cavalierly, the structure of their journey (mystery by way of pseudo-Greek tragedy) is too contrived, and the litany of terrors visited upon them is not only comical, but doled out sadistically. It's a work that acts as if human misery is inherently poetic and beautiful, so it's best to slather it on as pornographically (and yet as pretentiously) as possible. How highly, highly profound.