The room is pitch black, eerily silent. Flashlights begin to slowly flicker across a dark stage, dancing over shoes of all shapes, sizes and colors scattered disconcertingly across the floor. Tall, dried cornstalks provide the only hint as to where the audience might be. The actors release a collective sigh – “Yermedea,” Main Stage’s first show of the year, has begun.
Written by Erik Ehn and directed by Kym Moore – professor and assistant professor of theater arts and performance studies, respectively – “Yermedea” is the last of a 17-play series entitled “Soulographie: Our Genocides,” which Ehn has been writing for the last 20 years.
“Soulographie is a contemplation of genocidal policy and experience from an American perspective through the 20th century,” Ehn said, focusing on contentious areas such as Eastern Europe, Eastern Africa and Central America.
Inspired by one of Ehn’s trips to El Salvador in the early 1990s as part of a human rights convention, “Yermedea” follows the brutality of civil war, poverty and colonial history in El Salvador. By bringing together the narratives of Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca’s character Yerma, who finds herself unable to have children, and the tragic Greek figure of Euripides’ Medea, who is forced to kill her own offspring, “Yermedea” considers and reflects upon violence against women and their reproductive rights as a tool of genocidal warfare, Ehn said.
According to Moore, the play itself has often been referred to as “visual music” by its production crew because of the abstract nature of the storyline. This is embodied by the use of organic sounds, songs and shadows, which work together to bring the audience into the world that Ehn created. The set is sparse, though the actors’ ability to manipulate it allows for a dynamic interaction between stage and story.
“We have conceived this whole other world around the language of the play,” Moore said. “Erik is a poet, and we built this set around the poetry of the piece he gave us.”
This abstract storyline comes with a price – at times, the disconnected prose makes following the plot difficult. But through the combination of live actors and puppets, the audience is able to reconnect with the story.
“The puppets act as a medium between the audience and the life of the performance,” said Alejandra Prieto Garcia, puppet artist for the show.
Though the main characters are inspired by Bunraku – which uses three puppeteers to manipulate the figure – and Otome-style puppetry, more experimental puppets made of light and shadow also help illuminate the more disturbing psychological effects of life in genocide.
Because some of the puppets are attached directly to the actors’ bodies, the audience feels a connection to the inanimate objects that feels as real as any human performance. The incredibly life-like movements of Medea, who shifts between being portrayed by an actress and a puppet, are deeply disconcerting but hypnotic – their beauty make it impossible to stop watching.
“I think (puppets) are ideally suited to this line of interrogation because they can stand the pain,” Ehn said. “Though genocide is made in a way that forces us to turn away, we have to find ways to turn back and face it,” he said.
“Yermedea” is being performed Sept. 20-22 and 27-29 at 8 p.m. and Sept. 23 and 30 at 2 p.m. in Leeds Theater. After being performed at Brown, the piece will begin traveling around the area, making stops at 95 Empire in Providence and the Factory Theatre in Boston before ultimately arriving at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York. It will be performed in rotation alongside Ehn’s 16 other pieces during November.