War is hell. Anyone want to argue about it? Of course not. That’s why Flying Foot Forum gets away as well as it does with the overstuffed farrago Heaven. The show is the theatrical equivalent of a commemorative 9/11 plate: you can’t fault the intention, even if the execution is kind of tacky.
The “new dance/theater piece” was “created collaboratively” by Chan Poling (who wrote the music and lyrics) and Joe Chvala. Two decades in the making, the show is set in the mid-1990s in the former Yugoslavia. Photojournalist Peter Adamson (a blank Doug Scholz-Carlson) has been chronicling the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars; frustrated by the conflict’s persistence, he’s trying to get out but is lured to stay by Faruk (Eric Webster), who is trying to find his lost wife. They encounter a displaced family, and Adamson falls in “like” (there’s a whole song about this) with the spunky Lejla (Laurel Armstrong). Along the way, we are given a series of history lessons.
|heaven, presented at the guthrie theater through april 10. for tickets ($18-$30) and information, see guthrietheater.org.|
The story is told through enaction, narration (Scholz-Carlson often turns away from the actor he’s addressing to explain a potentially confusing plot point or historical fact to the audience), photography and video (projected on the back wall of the Dowling Studio), song, and dance. As director, Chvala does an impressive job holding this all together and keeping the show flowing smoothly—which is a good thing, since at two-plus hours including intermission, the show is not short.
My expectations for Heaven were very low, since Poling’s 2009 musical Venus was, to put it frankly, a complete mess. Though Heaven still didn’t convince me of Poling’s aptitude for musical theater, it’s certainly a lot better than Venus. The show is wildly ambitious, and some of the ideas it throws aginst the wall manage to stick. Chvala’s choreography effectively integrates vocabulary from Balkan folk dance, and Poling’s songs get the job done even if they’re not particularly memorable—or as well-integrated with folk idiom as the choreography is. When Scholz-Carlson and Armstrong sing about their star-crossed love, we leave Eastern Europe entirely and land in the produce aisle, squeezing cantaloupes and listening to smooth jazz.
The challenges of recounting real-world horrors in the form of musical theater was precisely the subject of the constructively challenging Scottsboro Boys, and Heaven falls into some of the traps to which that show pointed. In a direct parallel with Scottsboro Boys, in fact, Heaven has corpses come to life to sing about the circumstances of their death. In Heaven, the scene is played straight; in Scottsboro Boys, the electric chair victims do a little softshoe to remind us just how thin the line is between Schindler’s List and “Springtime for Hitler.” You may or may not find the rape-themed dance scene in Heaven to be done well, but we can probably agree that if you’re going to have a rape-themed dance scene, you had certainly better do it well.
What is definitely not done well in Heaven are the hackneyed book and lyrics, which are heavy in metaphors (“Here, hope is a plane that never lands”) that sometimes get awkwardly mixed (“Deep down, he had bigger fish to fry”). The technique of portraying a foreign land through the eyes of an observer who comes from the same place as the audience is an old dramatic standby—with good reason—but one that’s often criticized, also with good reason. Regardless, squeezing two love stories (or three, or four, or more, depending on how you count) into Heaven is too much. Matthew Everett’s Leave is a good example of how to effectively integrate a love story into a broader historical context; here, the romance between the local girl and the foreign guy feels tacked on and distracting.
For all its flaws, Heaven is a sincere testament. On Saturday night, a number of audience members were moved to tears. My friend who attended the performance with me said that her father’s girlfriend—a native Serbian—just gave her father a book about the 14th century battles in which the Serbs were defeated by the Turks, resulting from which this woman still holds a grudge against Muslims generally. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”; Chvala and Poling agree, but additionally urge that our memory not be selective.