Visky’s ‘Backborn’ captivates
The Nameless Man, portrayed by junior Branden Rudie, struggles to make sense of his world through words.
Playwright and visiting professor Andras Visky, who wrote ‘Backborn,’ participated in a talk-back session during the Festival of Faith and Writing.
There are times when I’m left with a feeling that no matter what I write in a review, it won’t come close to capturing what it needs to, either because of some deficiency of my own or the indescribable nature of what I’m reviewing. Calvin Theatre Company’s (CTC) performance of Andras Visky’s newest play, “Backborn,” is causing exactly that kind of problem for me.
The play, an addition to Visky’s genre of “Barracks Dramaturgy,” opened last weekend, during the Festival of Faith and Writing, making its North American debut and becoming Visky’s third play to call a Calvin stage home. CTC performed “Disciples” during Interim of 2006, the year before I came to Calvin, but I’ve been fortunate enough to see Visky’s hauntingly beautiful play about his mother, “Juliet,” twice here.
Like “Juliet,” “Backborn” presents the difficult crossroads between personal experience, religious tension and political uncertainty. Additionally, (like Visky’s mother in “Juliet”), it features a central character, (the Nameless Man, played Branden Rudie) consumed with existential questions and looking for some kind of solution to the quandaries of life. The problem that the Nameless Man faces is that his physical captivity during the Holocaust has left him a mental prisoner, and no matter how long it’s been since he was a physical prisoner, he will always remain one to a degree. His apprehension incarcerates him, anxieties that have their source in his earlier physical captivity.
The play explores this connection between physical and mental confinement and the accompanying duality present in the former prisoner. The Nameless Man is essentially two persons in one, a prisoner who no longer wants to be one, but who can’t see any other identity as real or truthful, so he remains one mentally. He hates what he has become, but can’t see how to be anything different. His hope remains, but it seems to him a seemingly impossible thing to attain.
And that’s the point that “Backborn” highlights so poignantly. The Nameless Man can’t save himself from what he’s become; he needs to be liberated. He needs to be set free by someone else, a theme that plays nicely into Visky’s “Barracks Dramaturgy.” Prisoners can’t get out by themselves; they need a savior, and that is exactly Visky’s point: captivity turns us into something we don’t want to be, and our only hope for freedom is through some kind of salvation. And so the audience follows the Nameless Man towards that point. We see his devolution into pseudo-madness, only to witness the final inrush of hope and liberation at the closing.
Director Stephanie Sandburg, like always, frames the thematic elements of the production well, using her actors as images as much as mouthpieces. Indeed, she turns their physicality into a medium almost as capable of telling the story as the actual writing. And she certainly had a capable cast. Rudie aptly carried the performance, giving a fearsome sincerity to his compromised protagonist. Other standouts included Chris Hageman and Brad Irish, each handling their duties well. Kaile VanOene, though, was the most arresting performer. The emotion she poured out as the Nameless Man’s wife was easily the most relatable aspect of the production, and her sometimes reserved talent was, fortunately, on full display.
The set, though minimalistic, was strikingly beautiful, one of my favorites out the CTC spaces I’ve seen. Characterized by functionality and an openness for movement, the stage lent itself well to the actors’ uses and the general feel of the production. Additionally, the lighting was spectacular. Highlighted by a near perfect grid, the Lab theater betrayed none of its usual drabness, instead taking on the necessary feel of “Backborn’s” equal parts beauty and frustration.
All things considered, “Backborn” is an interesting piece, thought-provoking to the point of frustration, but not so much so that it loses its point. And that seems to be the idea: to put the viewer in the mindset of the Nameless Man, to set the audience in a mental setting that will cause confusion, sadness, and irritation, allowing an escape only at the end of the struggle. In doing so, the play effectively conveys the feelings of captivity to those watching it, and succeeds in inspiring contemplative evaluation of the issues surrounding oppression. A worthy goal, and one the play achieves.
“Backborn” runs tonight and tomorrow (April 23 and 24) at 7:30 p.m. in the Laboratory Theatre. Tickets are available at the Calvin College Box Office.