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BWW Review: UNEXPLORED INTERIOR Opens Ambitious Mosaic Theater

Even 21 years later, the horrific atrocities of the Rwandan genocide is hard to wrap one's head around. How could 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis be macheted to death in just over three months by the country's other ethnic group, the Hutus - including thousands cowering in a single church?

Journalism and official reports never made sense of the madness. How can we expect the same of theater?

The sheer scale of the tragedy paired with the compulsion to let the world know about it makes the genocide just the right initial production for Ari Roth's ambitious Mosaic Theater, the major new company that's emerged since he was fired late last year after a remarkable run at the Jewish Community Center's innovative Theatre J. There, his penchant for precisely these kind of plays - those that push possibility and rattle the conscience - may have led to a dismissal that sent shockwaves through the nation's theater community.

His production then of Jay O. Sanders' world premiere Unexplored Interior (This is Rwanda: the Beginning and End of the Earth) at the Atlas Performing Arts Center serves notice that his worldwide vision and activism remains unshaken.

Not that it makes the story any easier to tell. After 11 years of workshops and rewriting, there's too much stuffed into a production that runs well over two and a half hours.

Past documentaries have focused on single aspects of the story - the guilt of Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian military leader of the United Nation peacekeeping force, at his inability to stem the carnage; an individual story of a Hutu hate monger and his Tutsi relationship; a son of the country who returns to see what happened to his homeland or to his family in particular.

Sanders, the strapping actor who played in films from Green Lantern to The Day After Tomorrow (and who played the cult leader Billy Lee Tuttle in season one of HBO's True Detective) throws all of that in his play and more.

Unexplored Interior is structured through the eyes of a young U.S.-educated Rwandan filmmaker (played by Desmond Bing) who returns to his home country with an American (Erika Rose) on the 10th anniversary of the genocide to find answers to his questions. Specifically, he's seeking the fate of his grandfather, a Tutsi griot (Bill Grimmette) who speaks in parables and carries a staff.

Then there are all these other stories - a Hutu government minister (Michael Anthony Williams) whose partner is a Tutsi woman (Shannon Dorsey), a childhood Hutu friend of the protagonist, and the struggles of Gen. Dallaire (Jeff Allin).

Such a compendium of grief cries for some relief - a kind of wisdom of the ages or even some wry commentary. And so Sanders has thrown in Mark Twain. That's right, Sam Clemens himself, from another country and another century. But he did write once about King Leopold in the Congo and condemned the human race, so you see how he fits in.

In fact, John Lescault in the role is a standout in the work, declaratively issuing clever quotes, largely derived from Twain himself. That these observations seem so strong only makes to make the other writing seem a little tepid by comparison.

And just having Twain there suggests the already surreal scenes of blood-soaked massacre were fantasy. If only they had been.

On Luciana Stecconi's striking set of stacked wood in the formation of Rwandan hills, where Jared Mezzocchi's projections evoke rain and blood, director Derek Goldman likes to fill the stage with the whole cast of more than a dozen, as if to evoke full community. The effect, though, is less a focused drama than it is a generalized pageant, dominated by narration and speeches.

Only in the second act, in a couple of focused interactions where the drama really turns, does theatricality begin to win out. And even then, with the film student and his friend as witness, there always seems too many people on stage; the action trapped in a framing device.

The very nobility of staging a big play on a subject nobody addresses in theater or in life means that people stand to applaud at the end. Certainly, Unexplored Interior is a good showcase for the inaugural group of the largely African-American theater company - and a show of intent to wade into difficult issues.

But as Mosaic continues its inaugural season, fearlessly titled "The Case for Hope in a Polarized World," it will doubtless gain stronger footing to closer meet their ambition.

Two hours, 40 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

UNEXPLORED INTERIOR (This is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth) a Mosaic Theater Company world premiere, continues through Nov. 29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets may be purchased at 202-399-7993 or online.

Photo: Erika Rose and Desmond Bing in "Unexplored Interior." Photo by Stan Barouh.

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From This Author Roger Catlin