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New York City Theater

Manhattan Theater Club

“Ruined,” is the kind of show publicists like to say is “ripped from the headlines.” Based on actual stories, its factual situations have been shaped into a two-act play so powerful that audiences scarcely breathe.

Author Lynn Nottage’s takes us to the Congo, specifically to a combination bar and whorehouse presided over by Mama Nadi, a full-figured woman right out of Brecht’s “Mother Courage.” Like that indomitable survivor, she’s a law unto herself. (Soldiers can’t enter her bar, no exceptions, unless they empty their weapons.)

Favoring neither government nor rebel side in the waging civil war, Mama Nadi’s sole interest is how much money she can rake in. “Survival is the only art I recognize,” she says. When offered a “ruined” girl by the man who supplies her sundries, she hesitates, for what use is damaged goods? What use is a woman so brutally raped in her native village that she could never service the johns who inhabit the bar?

What the ruined Sophie can do, however, is count the take and entertain. “The world knows no peace,” she sings, all the while trying to mediate between ever-present threats of violence and the fear that everyone is literally and symbolically “moving farther and farther away from home.”

The bar setting, surrounded by encroaching trees, is meant to be an oasis. But there is no getting away from terror and, in a series of scenes both brutal and tender, the plights of Sophie, the caustic Josephine and the feisty Salima stain the forest floor, a reminder that even the natural world is falling apart.

Beautifully acted and directed like a symphony by Kate Whoriskey whose contribution must be given equal praise with the playwright’s, this is an evening neither “pleasant” nor “escapist.” Yet it’s funny and frightening, exciting and evocative, easily one of the season’s outstanding offerings.

-- David Rosenberg
March 15, 2009

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