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SAN DIEGO
Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Ruined
La Jolla Playhouse

Ruined
Joseph Kamal, Adrian Roberts, Okieriete Onaodowan, Tonye Patano, Zainab Jah, Kola Ogundiran and Pascale Armand
Ruined, Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play now performing through December 19 at La Jolla Playhouse, can be a tough sell to casual theatregoers.  A plot synopsis makes it seem as though this is one of those plays that one feels "obliged" to see but not enjoy: a group of women protect themselves from the ravages of civil war in far-away Congo by working as prostitutes.  Yet, Ms. Nottage's eloquence and director Liesl Tommy's theatricality mix joy with horror and turn Ruined away from obligation and into one of those edge-of-your-seat-never-forget experiences.

Not that the horrific story you might have expected from the synopsis isn't present; each woman at Mama Nadi's place has suffered deeply from the back-and-forth of the fighting.  The men are more immune to the horrors, as they are often responsible for inflicting them, but even some of the fighters long for peace to return and life in the villages to go back to the way it was before the conflict.

In the midst of the fighting, some manage to take advantage of business opportunities.  The aforementioned Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano) is one of those, as her bar and brothel strives amiably to straddle the gap between the government and rebel forces and play host to each group, albeit not at the same time.  Other entrepreneurs make Mama's place their base of operations.  Among those are Christian, a.k.a. "The Professor" (Oberon K. A. Adjepong), a tea-totaling salesman who makes his money by doing favors for his customers; and Mr. Harari (Joseph Kamal), who buys and sells gems.  Both have ulterior motives for basing themselves at Mama's as each is infatuated with one of the women there: the sexy Josephine (Zainab Jah) for Harari, and Mama herself for the Professor.

This economic ecosystem is easily made unstable, however, given the constant shifts in alliances among the troops.   When Christian brings two additional women to Mama, she is uncertain that she can support them.  It turns out that both are damaged goods.  The tragic Salima (Pascale Armand) is pregnant and being sought by her husband, Fortune (Jason Bowen).  Her friend, Sophie (Carla Duren), cannot work as a prostitute, as she is "ruined": her genitals have been mutilated.

Mama handles her problems by using her lemons to make lemonade, and her resilience is also the play's.  Mama wants to make everyone happy, because it's good for business, so Sophie sings, Josephine leads everyone in dancing, and the two-piece band (Alvin Terry and Adesoji Odukogbe) keeps things moving (the original music is by the collective known as Broken Chord).   In the end, though, it is the relationships among the characters, not just their upbeat attitudes in the face of adversity, that keep them facing that adversity eloquently and with dignity.

Liesl Tommy has directed an earlier production of Ruined at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with members of its repertory company in the cast.  There are no carry-over cast members from that production, but the group plays as if it were part of a repertory company.  The ensemble feel dominates the performances, and Ms. Tommy has given each character a rich and detailed presence on stage.  Clint Ramos, who designed the set for the OSF production, serves the same function here to absolutely beautiful effect.  Lap Chi Chu's complex lighting design highlights changes in time, weather and mood, and Kathleen Geldard's costumes swirl with contrasts between combat gear and the garish outfits worn by the prostitutes.  Robert Barry Fleming coached the seamless sounding African dialects.

Don't feel obligated to see Ruined.  See it because you'll be watching a beautifully performed production of a deeply affecting play.

La Jolla Playhouse presents Ruined, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Huntington Theatre Company.  Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Liesl Tommy, with Clint Ramos Set Design; Kathleen Geldard, Costume Design; Lap Chi Chu, Lighting Design; Broken Chord Collective, Original Music, Sound Design and Musical Direction.

Cast members are: Oberon K.A. Adjepong as Christian, Pascale Armand as Salima, Jason Bowen as Fortune, Carla Duren as Sophie, Wendell Franklin as Jerome, Zainab Jah as Josephine, Joseph Kamal as Mr. Harari, Adesoji Odukogbe as Musician 2, Kola Ogundiran as Laurent, Okieriete Onaodowan as Simon, Tonye Patano as Mama Nadi, Adrian Roberts as Commander Osembenga and Alvin Terry as Musician 1.

Performs November 16 – December 19 on Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30 pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8:00 pm; Sun at 7:00 pm.  Matinees: Sat/Sun at 2:00 pm (except Sunday, November 21).  No performance Thanksgiving: Thursday, November 25.  Tickets ($31 - $66) available by calling the box office at (858) 550-1010, or by visiting the La Jolla Playhouse website.


Photo: Kevin Berne  

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

Follow Bill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SDBillEadie.



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