Freud and schadenfreude in a refugee camp
by Sonia Kovacs
There are moments of terrifying poignancy in this drama about Bosnian war refugees. Directed cleanly and simply by David Wolber, it's a story about the aftershocks of war from a woman's perspective, and in letting an ensemble of seasoned actors find their characters and tell their stories, Wolber and his cast have probably achieved all they can achieve out of a questionable script. The outstanding performances are by Shirley Benyas, Terry Heck, and Wendy Katz Hiller.
Unfortunately, Necessary Targets (by Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues) is really, the press release says, "the story of two American women who journey to Bosnia to help women refugees and emerge changed themselves." The refugees' stories are framed by the ongoing passive-aggressive bickering of a duo of naive American psychotherapists, sort of like Oscar Madison and Felix Unger without the humor. It's an arguable point whether they are "deeply changed themselves," but certainly they spend a lot of time taking their own emotional temperature. This could have been a mordant dark comedy about the uniquely American ability to take self-absorption to an evangelistic level. If a Sarajevan playwright had written it, it surely would have been that for antebellum Sarajevo was the home of sophisticated, tough, unsentimental, and world-class theater.
Ensler is not totally unaware of the irony of plunking these privileged support-group ambassadors into postwar chaos. Her Bosnian characters occasionally voice suspicion and disdain. One of the therapists struggles honestly with the accusation that the therapy they're purveying is patronizing. But Ensler leaves herself little room to explore that issue by creating so many characters that are cartoonish primitives. "You are so pretty and so modern," one of them fawns, touching the clothing of the therapist. This same character wonderingly recounts hearing a strange tale that in America people lie down on couches and tell their stories to a type of head doctor. This is simply not a credible way for this particular character to express
her unworldliness. I'm sure I'm not the only person in the audience who remembered that psychotherapy was invented a century ago in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Bosnia was a part.
Ensler does not try to disguise that she's a writer of message plays, this one's message being that women deserve to have their stories told. Here, though, she's miscalculated. In trying to find the connections between women that supersede the bonds with family or culture, she has buried her best material in a banal message about the wonders of women getting in touch with their feelings.
Necessary Targets continues its five-week run at Performance Network Thursday through Sunday, through March 9.
[Originally published in March, 2003.]