Dallas — Belgian playwright Carly Wijs’ 2014 Us/Them is ostensibly about the Beslan school siege, when Ingush and Chechen militants held more than a thousand hostages, mostly children, for three days in early September 2004 in the southwestern Russian town. But while the play does focus on the details of the attack (and the play does provide several details, like that there are four vegetarians in the town with a population of less than 37,000), Wijs’ script is really more about how people, specifically children, deal with the trauma of terrorism. Co-founder of Prism Movement Theater and prolific actor Katy Tye directs the U.S. non-Equity premiere of Us/Them for Echo Theatre at the Bath House Cultural Center.
Set designer and technical director Randall Bonifay’s blank slate greets the audience. There is an actual blackboard at the back, but the entire stage mirrors its blankness, its blackness. Two clusters of balloons lifelessly dangle on either side of the board. They, too, are black. In stark contrast to the festivities celebrating the first day of school that the play’s two children eagerly relate, there is nothing festive about the scene. It is as if the often mentioned heat and terror have already stripped the space of all joy.
The two children are played by Eric Berg and Kristen Lazarchick. Throughout the production, they draw on the surfaces of the set, including the floor, with chalk. They map out the buildings of the school complex for the audience, pointing out the three exits and mentioning out-of-sight hiding places. The boxes that represent classrooms serve as a makeshift hopscotch in a later scene. Such transformations remind us that those seemingly neutral squares that symbolize architecture are alive with possibility: they can be turned into flights of fancy or effectively converted into literal dead ends.
Berg and Lazarchick skillfully navigate the various opposing currents of Wijs’ script. While the adult actors portray children, who, in turn, take on the roles of other characters (such as a tractor-driving hero and a terrorist with a leg cramp), they also pull off childlike exuberance that contrasts with their grave situation.
As the boy attempts to perform simple math problems at the blackboard, the math equations morph into the unsolvable calculus of terror. The girl impassively interrupts his calculations with updated figures: what started out as 1,148 hostages is now 1,146. Correction: now 1,141. The boy’s math problems subtly remind the audience of the sly division problem set up in the play’s title: what are the ways that “they” divide “us”? These juxtapositions run their course on stage in barely more than 45 minutes
Wijs has stated that she wrote Us/Them to try to talk about something that is near impossible to talk about, especially for children. And in a recent interview with TheaterJones, newly appointed Managing Artistic Director Kateri Cale describes this work as taking “the audience inside a siege and into the naïve logic of children as they struggle to understand what’s happening.” Cale explains, “The playwright kept the script under an hour to hold the attention of teenage and adult audiences, and leave time for discussion afterward.” Each post-show discussion is led by a licensed trauma counselor from Centene Corporation.
Lighting design by Ryan Burkle effectively establishes the mood for each scene. A faint red glow on the horizon is purposely ambiguous. It just as easily indicates the new day dawning as well as the menace of terrorists making their way across the frontier between Chechnya in the east and the school. Days into the siege, a dehydration- (and fear-)induced fantasy sequence in which the girl imagines a giraffe frolicking around the gymnasium where the hostages are held is bathed in a neon green.
Claire Carson contributes an engaging sound design to the play, which includes moody pre-show instrumental works by Sigur Rós and Animal Collective as well as the Mission: Impossible theme during another fantasy scene when the children imagine being rescued by a band of heroic fathers.
The play doesn’t offer us much information about the real terrorists. The children glean from rumors among the adults that the Chechen men are all pedophiles and the women all have mustaches. But when the boy lists the terrorists’ demands on the blackboard, he manages to distill them down to peace and freedom, which leaves him even more confused. Audiences of adults and mature children should be able to handle these kinds of ambiguities and themes. With Us/Them, Echo Theatre makes a strong start to their 21st season.