The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been ongoing for the past 18 months. Thousands of soldiers dead on both sides. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians dead. Cities and landscapes destroyed. All for the ego of a Russian dictator. Tales of horrible atrocities came out of the country from the start of hostilities. Now Ukranian playwright Andriy Bondarenko (translation by John Freedman and Vladyslav Hetmanenko) has written a new three-part play about the war in Ukraine. Santa Monica’s City Garage is currently presenting the World Premiere of Ghost Land. In a program note, the playwright says the war has changed the way he writes. He says he now writes “because there are voices in my head that want to be heard. It’s like I’m haunted by ghosts of this horrible war that speak through me. It’s as if I live not only in reality, but also in some ghost land.” The reality of Bondarenko’s ghost land is vividly brought to life in Frederique Michel’s staging. It’s simple yet involving. The writing is heightened at times as is the direction and the acting.
In “The Butterfly”, Iura (David E. Frank), an Ukranian soldier who is also a cultural historian, is talking with a psychologist (Andy Kallok) in his office. He tells him about his dreams and his days and nights in the trenches fighting the war. Iura finally admits he is already dead, lying in a field covered by a blood-encrusted blanket. He is just looking for a remedy for his hiccups. We then see scenes of Iura and two fellow soldiers and we ponder the questions of who is a butterfly and who is a man, who is dead and who is alive as the soldiers constantly fall in battle. The haunting images of the three-legged Martian war machines from The Great Martian War make an effective backdrop for the action. Sannazzaro’s video design throughout the show is top notch, effectively setting the mood.
In “The Dowry”, a family-Father (Kallok), Mother (Juliet Morrison) and daughter Halia (Lea De Carmo) have been trapped in their village for nine months now because of the war. There is no way out for them as they await the birth of Halia’s rape-induced child. Their home is invaded by a Russian officer (Sannazzaro) and by Tiny (Isaac Stackonis) a Ukranian who is a newly minted private in the Russian army. Tiny claims he has come to marry Halia, then admits he was the one who raped her. The officer demands a dowry and strips the older couple of their clothes and their belongings. The wife has earlier told an old folk tale of men who were cursed and became wolves. As the soldiers gather the pitiful dowry, they begin to transform into ravening wolves themselves.
In “Crime and Punishment”, Gennadiy (Irvine) a Russian interrogator/torturer, is getting ready to practice his craft on Julia (Angela Beyer) in a dimly lit basement room. Julia claims to be a journalist who has come to the war zone, not to report on the atrocities, but rather to evacuate her mother. Gennadiy claims she is lying and is really a spy. He dons a dentist’s clean white smock and displays his industrial strength drill. He delights in telling Julia what he is going to do with her body before he ends up raping her. She tries to anger him, to get him to give her a swift death with one of his many hatchets. The angrier he gets, the calmer she gets. She finally admits he is just a ghost she had cursed. Ukraine has been liberated, the war is over, Checkov’s cherry orchards will bloom once again. It’s a rosy ending to a grim evening. Hope burns eternal.