War of nerves

Dead Woman Home

By May Nazareno
Directed by Teresa Thurman
Midtown International Theatre Festival
WorkShop Theater Co./Jewel Box Theater (closed)
Review by Charles Battersby

It comes as no surprise that a play with a title like Dead Woman Home should be depressing. May Nazareno's one-woman, multimedia show is out to show "the human face behind the headlines." The headlines are media coverage of the August 19, 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, and the human face is that of Marilyn Manuel, a UN aide who was wounded in the attack, and presumed dead in the aftermath.

Depressing it certainly is, since the Manuel story illustrates how every statistic in the war on terror has a story behind it. Inevitably, a tad of self-importance creeps in too (the final multimedia sequence is a lengthy scrolling list of bombing incidents since August 2003), but all was well-intended, and more importantly, well-done.

In Dead Woman Home, Nazareno portrayed not only Mrs. Manuel, but also UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, reporter Victoria Burns, and several members of the Manuel family. The script is mostly composed of monologs based on Nazareno’s interviews with these family members, and the reason Manuel's story makes for better drama than other survivor stories might, is that her family thought Marilyn was dead for several days after the attack.

The improbable events, while a true story, sound more like a movie of the week than real life; a tragically surreal mix-up with the body of Spanish diplomat Manuel Martin, who was killed in the attack, led everyone to presume a coffin marked "M. Manuel" had to belong to Marilyn.

The script gets to the bombing very quickly: in fact, the very first monolog is Marilyn getting hit by the blast. This gives the audience very little time to get to know Marilyn before being expected to care about her tragedy. Several following scenes are set in Baghdad clinics, where Marilyn was taken after the explosion, so a bit of suspense is lost by letting the audience know that Marilyn is alive, and sympathy for the family's pain is lessened.

No one can deny that Nazareno distinguished herself as an actress, though, portraying six different roles. Props and occasional costume pieces helped distinguish between roles, but it was Nazareno's performance that made Marilyn, and her relatives, come alive.

The set housed many locations at once and was dominated by the multimedia screen upstage. The multimedia sequences were well-directed and well-edited. Mostly consisting of CNN footage or interviews, these sequences also had some interactive scenes, including one where Nazareno, as reporter Victoria Burns, participated in a press conference with a government official on screen.

Aside from story-telling, Dead Woman Home deals with the social issues behind its events. The script analyzes the motivations behind terrorism, and compares self-immolating Tibetan monks and Japanese kamikaze pilots to Iraqi suicide bombers. Media coverage of the war is also addressed, including the fact that photogenic hostage Jessica Lynch seemed to have gotten the lion’s share of media coverage, while the Manuel story became a mere footnote.

Dead Woman Home might not prevent any future bombings from happening, but it certainly lived up to its promise of showing the human story behind the often-biased headlines in the war on terror.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 2
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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