In theory, Dhana and the Rosebuds, a theater-dance hybrid about a Syrian emigree seeking her refugee grandmother, should be compelling. It is topical. Its wedding of abstract and ritualized movement, set, and prop design with an ever-so-current story is bold. It has two lead characters we reflexively sympathize with and root for. And its conscientious, cohesive all-women cast projects a welcome distaff alternate war story focusing on the horrid consequences of largely male military and political antagonisms in the Middle East.
Yet it falls flat. Why?
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Mostly, because it’s too sketchy. After Sunday afternoon’s 75-minute performance, Ty Hallmark, founding and producing artistic director of Ally Theatre Company, said that the troupe has been progressing since May on this production, which she called “a work in progress.”
The piece is devised and created by Federica Cellini and based on a screenplay she wrote with Giulia Corda. As a midway workshopped draft, it’s intriguing. As a show to be presented to the public, it has a long way to go.
The bones of the plot are promising. Dhana (Dina Soltan), who left Aleppo for London as a teenage scholarship student, moved to New York, and became a scientist. She thinks she glimpsed, in a TV news clip, the grandmother who raised her. She seeks out Julia (Valerie Fenton), a revered, hardened TV war correspondent to help her track down the grandmother.
Together, following thin leads, the not entirely copacetic duo enter Serbo-Croatian territories, where Syrian refugees flood in and where Julia has a tragic romantic history from her coverage of the war in the Balkans. Along the way, the two stay in a refugee camp, which is then disbanded, and they are thrust among the countryless masses. Dhana wants her grandmother, and Julia wants a story about a reunion.
Not a bad premise, right? The problem is that the shading isn’t there. We see some flashbacks that explain why Dhana wanted to leave Syria–her grandmother, who raised her, planned to marry her off at 13. We learn that it was financially tough, despite her scholarship, to become her own woman in London and New York. And we see that she is ambivalently scornful toward traditional Syrian women who stayed in what she clearly considers a backward country, especially for women.
But given that, what pangs pulled Dhana into this misadventure upon seeing her grandmother on TV? What is her life like now? She remembers a fancy ice cream shop in Aleppo and the delicacies her grandma sold in the market, but what else does she remember of her family and friends? What happened to her parents?
As for Julia, she’s cynical and she likes a good story. But she keeps helping Dhana even when that story looks unlikely, and she was in love and is making a point of getting back to Sarajevo to talk to her deceased beau’s parents. Clearly there’s more to this woman, but what?
All unanswered, and that’s too bad because Soltan and Fenton have the chops to flesh out these characters if the script would. Soltan is cosmopolitan and feisty. Fenton is tough but has a tender heart.
The push and pull between the two women is also fertile territory for dramatic expansion, but goes mostly unexplored. Beyond the geopolitical context, reading story gurus Syd Field and Robert McKee could help spur some thoughts along those lines.
Dhana and the Rosebuds closes November 23, 2019. Details and tickets
Also, the show’s pacing is episodic and heavy. Seventy-five minutes for a theater piece shouldn’t seem long, but here it does.
Still, there are some interesting theatrical seeds in this production. Clever is the way big white tarps become not just coverings and shelters but Louise Bourgeois-like anthropomorphic eggs, boats, bridges between the animate and the inanimate, and between life and death.
Clever, too, is the way Cellini and her cast use JoAnne Akalitis-type repeated, ritualized movement to show the heartbreaking desperation of, for instance, showing a relative’s picture around to endless strangers. That has become, sadly, all too common a scene everywhere from refugee centers to the south tip of Manhattan after 9/11. And echoing the tarpaulin theme is the big black dress that becomes an undulating marriage bed for two.
In other words, there is potential here. But start with the script. Work more, presumably, from the screenplay. Or if that doesn’t answer the questions that need answering, flesh out the screenplay and reverse-engineer the play.
We need good dramatic takes on today’s twisted fascist-tinged, refugee-producing screwup of a world. And maybe, with some further development, Dhana and the Rosebuds could become one of those works.
Dhana and the Rosebuds . Devised and created by Federica Cellini, with assistant direction by Allison Frisch. Based on a screenplay by Federia Cellini and Giulia Corda. Cast: Dina Soltan, Valeri Fenton, Jane Petkofsky, Mariam Hathor, Anika Harden, Lauren Kieler, Natasha Preston, Chelsea Thaler. Production manager: Alex Davis. Stage Manager: Jayla Felder. Production Stage Manager: Shannon Sauliner. Fight and intimacy choreography: Chris Niebling. Assistant choreography: Lauren Kieler. Lighting design: Jeniffer Leon. Costume Design: Jessica Utz. Sound design: Asia-Twi McCallum. Props design and set dressing: Ty Hallmark, Matt Ripa, Matthew Keenan, Christian Sullivan, Gustavo Trejo, and cast and directing team. Produced by Ally Theatre Company . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.