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Poor writing dooms Arizona Rep's 'Necessary Targets,' but Borderlands' 'Agnes Under the Big Top' is solid and well-acted

When playwright Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues grew from a simple performance piece into a theater phenomenon in the 1990s, it was both applauded and condemned.

The in-your-face, no-holds-barred confrontational nature of its various stories about all things vagina-related—including birth and rape—challenged, captivated, horrified and repulsed audiences, even some feminists. A bold intimacy characterized the piece, and many found themselves moved by the stories of the women who spoke so openly, directly and fearlessly, and who reflected their own experiences.

So when a newer Ensler piece, Necessary Targets, took the Arizona Repertory Theatre stage at the University of Arizona last week, it was no surprise to discover a story of courageous women—this time in a Bosnian refugee camp—who, although victimized, never really seemed like victims.

It could be argued that Ensler is more activist than artist. From the reverberations and impact of The Vagina Monologues grew V-Day, a worldwide movement to shed light on violence against women, and to raise funds to assist women who have been victimized.

The more-activist-than-artist argument certainly gets support from Necessary Targets, which gives us a predictable story with one-dimensional characters. The scenes are short and choppy and show us little, especially in the first part of the play. Although these scenes set forth some intriguing themes, they are not knit together well enough—or developed deeply enough—to drive these ideas dramatically, providing little momentum for emotional impact.

J.S. (Georgia Harrison), a psychiatrist, and Melissa (Erica Renee Smith), a trauma counselor and writer, set up shop in a Bosnian refugee camp where they are to provide support to traumatized women. The idea is to facilitate their healing by giving the women an opportunity to talk about their experiences and express their feelings in a safe place, thereby exorcising the demons they live with as a result of their displacement, the brutality with which they have been treated, and the horrors they have witnessed.

J.S. is an uptight, upper-class shrink used to treating eating disorders and the like; Melissa is a hardened veteran of refugee-camp visitation and seems less interested in helping the displaced women than in compiling stories for her book.

The women of the camp represent various ages, classes and degrees of emotional wounds, and they greet the outsiders with attitudes ranging from curiosity to distrust to contempt. Eventually, we get to know these women better—not so much as characters who develop, but because of moments when they simply tell us their stories outright. Their stories are heartbreaking, and the young actresses do a good job of conveying them with empathy. But Ensler would have a stronger play if their storytelling was simply presented as a series of monologues, without the pretense that they are part of a drama. If many of the characters lack nuance and credibility, it's more Ensler's fault than that of the young actors.

The stories of such women need to be heard, and Ensler's impulse to tell them is a good one. Unfortunately, her effort here is rather clumsy. Although ART does a commendable job, the result is a flat and unfulfilling drama.

There are many things to like about Agnes Under the Big Top: A Tall Tale, a new play by Aditi Brennan Kapil, and Borderlands Theater has given the intriguing play a solid production.

It's an intriguing piece, although Kapil is a bit heavy-handed metaphorically. She wants us to see that life is a bit of a free fall, and we are at our best when we take our leaps of faith into the unknown. Whether that is executing on the dangerous flying trapeze, moving to a new country in search of a better life, or falling into the darkness of death, our greatest moments of freedom come when we can let go. That's when we fly.

Shipkov (Philip G. Bennett), a former ringmaster in a circus in Bulgaria, is a light-rail operator who is training a young Indian man (Laxmi Dahal) to conduct the trains. His wife, Roza (Susan Arnold), is a home health-care worker, although not a very attentive one, since she seems to speak no English and is drunk much of the time. Agnes (T Loving), an immigrant from Liberia, is also a caretaker, and she and Roza share the job of caring for Ella (Toni Press-Coffman), a sad and lonely woman crippled by arthritis. Agnes, who finds out she has cancer, attempts to confront how she will deal with an early death and leaving behind the young son she has in Liberia.

One of the best aspects of Kapil's play is the intriguing characters. They are involved in separate stories, but their paths do cross, although some of their interactions make more dramatic sense than others. But the point is made: Though we are involved in living our own stories, our actions have an impact on others, and we all are similarly involved in the larger story of negotiating this often-troublesome life. We may not always recognize it, but we are all on the same train headed for the same terminal.

The actors generally do a good job of telling Kapil's story. Arnold is a sad and haunted Roza, and impressively, she seems at ease speaking Bulgarian. Loving does a strong job as Agnes, although we don't really see the pain that's part of coming to terms with her imminent death. Even though she makes her peace with letting go, showing us a bit more of the pain inherent in that struggle would give her a desirable extra dimension. Press-Coffman is a very sympathetic Ella, and both Dahal and Bennett contribute admirably.

Part of Borderlands' stated mission is to produce new works, which means taking big risks. Agnes Under the Big Top, although not a perfect piece, makes us appreciate the group's willingness to take those risks.

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