|Felicia Curry, Yesenia Iglesias, and Holly Twyford in “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” at Signature Theatre. [C. Stanley Photography]|
Arresting and compelling are two words that come to mind to describe Signature Theatre’s fiery production about survival in a society racked by long-term natural disasters and deadly human-made upheavals.
Playwright Heather McDonald’s magisterial “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” is having a blistering premiere at Signature’s snugly outfitted black-box ARK Theatre.
Under the penetrating direction of Nadia Tass, “Masterpieces” is bracing and unsettling. In its briskly paced no-intermission 95 minutes, “Masterpieces” has scenes of overpowering clarity with exquisite interpersonal intimacy juxtaposed against moments of intense vengeful staged violence, both verbal and physical. The play is pensive and rational, then turns emotionally hell-bent.
“Masterpieces” focuses on three desperate women. Each is on an improbable journey to find a modicum of hope and healing under the most incongruous circumstances. Will they find any common healing shreds of humanity or only suffer deeper wounds from the sharp shards they encounter from one another?
The three women are trapped in a ravaged museum in an unnamed country being used as an interrogation center and prison. Think hints of a fictional Abu Ghraib. The one-time museum may also be a home for wayward large zoo animals. Or maybe not.
Each of the three featured characters is there for a different reason. Each undergoes a major transformation in order to save something or someone.
There is Layla, an elegantly attired, precisely-spoken academic with a slide show clicker in hand from a Western country who wants to save ravaged art. Even in the most dire situations, Holly Twyford portrays Layla with self-possessed aplomb.
Yesenia Iglesias is a marvel as the at-first-glance demurely attired, soft-spoken Nadia, a young woman from the unnamed country who has rudimentary nursing skills gleaned from watching television. Her inner strength is one of intense ferocity. Felicia Curry plays Mitra, a brutal young military zealot who is taking part in the revolution that has captured Layla and Nadia.
Singly and together through scene after scene, Curry, Iglesias, and Twyford hold one’s attention. Even in moments when I wanted to look away, I did not. I could not. I knew I was in the hallowed presence of a powerful work raising issues about “civilization” and human beings not often glimpsed on the stage.
“Masterpieces” is an encounter well worth making, especially for those with adventure in their hearts and souls who want to cross some boundaries into the brutal and the eloquent. The production took my breath away with its verisimilitude about human cruelty (fight choreography by Robb Hunter) and human decency.
It left me more deeply shaken as I wondered to myself what would I save of my own known “civilized” world, if I only had a few minutes to decide and a cardboard shoebox at my disposal.
Where and when: “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” is at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington. The play runs through April 7. Purchase tickets online or call 703-820-9771.
This article is based on a review in DC Metro Theater Arts.