Two Muslims, two Christians, a Jew, and an Irish Nationalist are trapped in a haunted house. Surely, this sounds like the set-up for an off-color joke, but it was the premise of the experience presented to the small groups of viewers who wandered the halls of 329 Washington Terrace last weekend to view senior Lily Haje’s thesis production, “Fire + Bone,” presented by the Wesleyan Theater Department.
To call 329 Washington a haunted house is perhaps misleading; it’s haunted, sure enough, but not by ghosts. Instead, living souls remain trapped in its confines. Haje, a double major in theater and religion, and her stellar cast of six created a world unto itself, where the struggles of characters who consider themselves martyrs or heroes have space to come fully to light. Internal conflicts, such as the doubt that so often accompanies blind faith, had just as much attention devoted to them as external ones, if not more. To be a martyr, “Fire + Bone” asserts, is to sacrifice one’s life, independence, and very self to the cause one affirms. What is often left behind is a shell of a human being whose existence has only the barest hints of normality in it and whose life (though intense) is not likely to last long.
“Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame,” said the talented Tess Jonas ’15, playing the role of Hannah, a Jewish paratrooper, with a hawk-like ferocity.
The house these figures occupied embodied the strangeness and, perhaps, the futility of the characters’ struggles. The space (designed by a six-person team led by Stratton Coffman ’14) was filled with eerie lights, strange furniture (one room contained a bed shot through with golden curtain rods), and ubiquitous dirt. This dirt invaded the scenes, clinging to the martyrs despite their claimed religious purity and forming the centerpiece of easily the most arresting moment of the night: a midnight meal, presided over by Richie Starzec ’14 as the Christian martyr Ignatius, at a table overflowing with plates and cups full of dirt and pebbles. As the martyrs filled their glasses and drank the stones, it seemed that together the six might find a measure of peace. (The practice of eating dirt, known as geophagy, is very real and exists in some cultures for nutritional reasons; Haje’s cast, however, practiced some deft sleight of hand.) As the meal progressed, however, the violence that lurked just beneath the martyrs’ surfaces again boiled up, and the meal fell apart before the audience members’ (and a despairing, downtrodden Ignatius’) eyes.
Other scenes were just as powerful, thanks primarily to the star-studded cast and atmosphere of the house itself. “Fire + Bone” was staged in the same style as the now-famous “Sleep No More” by the Punchdrunk theater ensemble, allowing audience members to wander from room to room following actors that interested them (or not). Only occasionally were we confronted by locked doors or silent ushers barring the way, and an exhortation to explore the space ensured frequent discoveries of hidden nooks and crannies even in unoccupied rooms. I know for a fact that I did not see the “entire” show the night I attended; like its famous predecessor, “Fire + Bone” would require multiple exposures to uncover every angle.
Jonas and Starzec gave their usual excellent performances (Starzec also played an early Christian woman named Perpetua who was martyred in the gladiatorial arena). Christian Schneider ’14 has returned from his semester abroad in top form, giving a gruff, defiant, and surprisingly poignant performance as Bobby, the Irish Nationalist (one surprisingly tender scene included his reminiscences of his family). Kate Malczewski ’15 was glorious as Marguerite, a French mystic and perhaps the most outrightly bizarre and transcendental of the bunch, with eyes wide and ritual movements ecstatically embraced. Mark Popinchalk ’13 and Emma MacLean ’14 played Nidal and Reem, respectively, Palestinian freedom fighters torn by the desire to see their homeland reborn and the monumental sacrifices that might be demanded for that cause. Nidal and Reem were a unit, though whether mother and son, husband and wife, or brother and sister was never fully clear (Reem was pregnant). In any case, their relationship was clearly one of mutual dependence and need, and their desperation was deeply moving in a Beckettian way.
In the end, despite Ignatius’ best efforts (I suspect the text was based on the work of Ignatius of Antioch, an early Christian bishop), no harmony could be reached between the warring factions. In fact, there was never even the chance of harmony: “Fire + Bone” as theater was meant to hit its audience as an experience, not a narrative. This has some disturbing implications (if there can be no end in sight for these six, whither goes conflict resolution in our own world?), but no one can dispute the play’s power. Nor can one dispute the fascinating dichotomy inherent, it would seem, in the martyr’s existence: of this world but striving to be out of it, he seeks peace but is constantly stirred by violence. It’s a compelling mixture, and one that I could hardly wish to have given a better presentation.