A blinding strobe pops periodically in After a Hundred Years, as if the whole audience were photojournalists. These repeated flashes sometimes mark the end of a scene, but they also suggest moments when the audience tries to understand the scene before it. This is the reigning conceit of After a Hundred Years, which opened on June 11 at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio as part of the New Play Program funded by the Bush Foundation. Naomi Iizuka’s newest drama makes us witnesses to a highly complex story—that of the legacy of the Khmer Rouge in today’s Cambodia, and the broader political context of Western involvement in the South Asian Peninsula.
After a Hundred Years, a play written by Naomi Iizuka and directed by Lisa Portes. Presented through June 29 at the Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Minneapolis. For tickets ($22-$30) and information, see guthrietheater.org.
The play takes place in and around the capital city of Phnom Penh. The time is now—the present—but also back then, during the time of the Killing Fields, and perhaps also in the future. Thus the play’s title, a quotation from an Emily Dickinson poem: ”After a hundred years / Nobody knows the place, / Agony, that enacted there, / Motionless as peace.” In the other two stanzas of the poem, strangers stroll through graves, and only the wind has the means to remember the past. In the spirit of Dickinson’s evocation of a place steeped both in pain and sorrow, After a Hundred Years brings together survivors of the Khmer Rouge, perpetrators of violence, and American witnesses to the suffering in the impoverishment of today’s Cambodia. What is the difference between the mass graves of the Killing Fields and the fate of a city with—as the play tells us many times—a population where over 50% of those tested for HIV are positive? This enactment of history’s presence—its refusal to go away and its unfortunate tendency to return in new, more unsavory forms—is the driving force of the play.
When Luke (Peter Christian Hansen) has the opportunity to interview one of the last surviving members of the Khmer Rouge still refusing to disavow his political past (James Saito), he meets up with a college friend, Tim (Robert O. Berdahl)—a doctor treating AIDS patients. Add to the cast Tim’s wife Sarah (Stacia Rice) who has her own past, a middle-aged business woman and fortune teller, a teenage prostitute, and a blind musician…the play succeeds, with a cast of only six actors, in suggesting a complex, multi-generational, international portrait of the problem of political guilt and survivors’ memory.
Iizuka is known for works that tackle big subjects and render them human and personal, and this is the challenge of After a Hundred Years. In many ways the production succeeds: Mia Katigbak, James Saito, and especially Robert O. Berdahl offer complex and nuanced performances of characters who straddle ethical and historical lines in order to survive. Everyone in this play has secrets, some vastly geopolitical and some very personal. This might be the problem with Iizuka’s script—that it too quickly parallels a genocide with an innocent accident, and asks the audience to parse the perpetrators’ levels of responsibility. There are times in this script when glibness takes hold and platitudes abound, but perhaps for Iizuka our behavior is indeed chichéd when it comes to history repeating itself, or being written by the victors, or being at once political and personal. Still, when a character says, “Save your clichés for someone else,” the audience’s laughter was maybe more empathetic than it should have been.
With so many strong performances it is unfortunate that Peter Christian Hansen is both perfect for his part and yet falls short. Brimming with energy as Luke—a virile, single, American freelance journalist with experience reporting from war-torn Afghanistan and the Sudan—he is the center of our attention and the major source of our identification; his interloping in this foreign land with its deep mysteries mirrors the audience’s own position. But Hansen’s performance lacked restraint and spiraled too quickly toward indignation at the network of injustices around him, whether past or present. In the end, it seemed laughable that he could be a seasoned journalist whose stories could make a difference or capture “the truth,” as characters kept saying. However, Hansen’s predicament—which may be a failing of the script and not of this actor or his director—is also the audience’s. How do we make choices about our involvement in histories we hardly know, let alone understand?
For those who appreciate attempts at rendering this kind of question both highly personal and exceedingly complex, After a Hundred Years will prove satisfying, if occasionally uneven. A beautiful set by Brian Sidney Bembridge with lighting by Marcus Dilliard capitalizes on the Dowling Studio’s intimacy. When a stream of rice pours onto the stage we cannot help but be reminded of how precious, and beautiful, mere survival is. In Minneapolis in a theater next to former flour mills, this is an effective reminder of the fact that the price of rice—a staple food for half the world—is causing riots in Southeast Asia and across the globe.
Juliette Cherbuliez is Assistant Professor of French at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) and author of The Place of Exile: Leisure Literature and the Limits of Absolutism. Her work has appeared in Nottingham French Studies and The French Review.
Michael J. Opperman is a writer based in the Twin Cities. His poetry, fiction and reviews have appeared in the New Hampshire Review, Coe Review, MARGIE Review, and Rain Taxi. During the day, he works in the interactive space at Clockwork Active Media Systems.
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