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Off Broadway Reviews

Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 14, 2017

Tunde Skovran and Julia Ubrankovics
Photo by Lindsey Mejia

Watching Toys, the "dark fairy tale" by Saviana Stanescu that opened tonight at 59E59 Theaters, is like attending an exhibit of abstract expressionism and trying to make heads or tails out of what you are seeing. Cryptic, bewildering, absurd, nightmarish. Take your pick of adjectives. They all apply to this work, which is more a piece of performance art than a play, elucidating little and requiring you to interpret as you will.

Running just under an hour, Toys is a nonrepresentational depiction of the devastating impact of war, seemingly the "ethnic cleansing" of a minority population in a battle-torn part of the world. There are two women onstage. One of them calls herself Clara (Julia Ubrankovics) and claims to be a doctoral student at NYU, working on a dissertation titled "Women in War Zones." The other is Shari, sometimes referred to as "Madonna" (Tunde Skovran), a refugee whom Clara is interviewing for the project.

After the first few minutes, however, meaning become muddied and open to multiple perspectives. Shari claims that Clara isn't Clara, but Shari's sister Fatma, who was taken to the United States, where she was sheltered from the horrors back home. Not so for Shari, who stayed behind and was forced to give up her job as an English teacher and become a "volunteer nurse." Her task, she explains matter-of-factly, was to prepare the endless stockpile of corpses of her slaughtered countrymen for burial, "even if there is only half of a body, no legs, or no head."

But do not seek coherent explication, as things become more and more metaphysical from here to the end. All I can give you is the inference I came away with, namely that Clara/Fatma and Shari/Madonna are one and the same, and that we are viewing the piece from inside a PTSD-ravaged mind. If you think of it this way, the work, directed with a distancing air of dispassion by Gábor Tompa, contains some seriously disturbing images: a hand grenade that Shari threatens to trigger on a moment's notice; a bagful of baby dolls that Shari, wearing her nurse's cap, beheads one at a time; the director's shadowy lighting design; the growing look of horror on Clara's face. If these represent actual events that Clara/Fatma/Shari/Madonna has witnessed, it certainly supports the hypothesis that her mind has snapped under the assault. Every impression is like a flash of memory that may never coalesce into a whole, and even a giddy reenactment of a wedding that brings Toys to a close is suggestive of a mind hiding in protective escapism.

Toys is unusual, to say the least, opaque in its delivery but nevertheless packed with meaning, like a particularly dense poem. But if you are interested in experimental theater, now is your opportunity to see a piece by Ms. Stanescu, an award-winning Romanian-American writer and teacher. You will either shrink away in bafflement, or take up the challenge to piece together the scattered remains of this convoluted jigsaw puzzle of a play.

Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale
Through November 26
59E59 Theater B, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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