Dan Hodge commandingly plays the American narrator who has written a book about his youthful experiences in Rwanda during its 1994 civil war and genocide. Mr. Hodge created the role in the 2017 Philadelphia production of the play. The boyish yet mature, and personable Hodge perfectly portrays this young man traumatized by witnessing atrocities. His All-American presence, good looks and charisma energize the grim and familiar material. He enters through the theater and addresses the audience throughout with charm.
Sharing the stage with Hodge is African drummer and instrumentalist Abou Lion Diarra. While not speaking, Mr. Diarra exhibits great stage presence as he plays his original musical compositions that integrally support Hodge’s performance. The ominous sound of machetes is eerily replicated by Diarra as he scratches on his drum and against a thatched wall.
Sixteen-year-old Ohioan David Zosia is a high school football player who spends spring break with his cheerleader girlfriend on a Christian religious mission in Rwanda. They get caught up in the violence that erupts. Years later after becoming a writer, he publishes a book of his recollections of that time. He receives a letter from someone he knew then who challenges his veracity, “There are untruths here.” The conceit of the play is that Zosia is now setting the record straight in a recorded chronicle to his now ex-girlfriend.
Dead bodies floating in a bloody river, infants bashed against walls and starving dogs shot by soldiers before they can devour corpses are among the horrors described.
“Why are you telling me this?” was the legendary director Mike Nichols’ question that he believed that the audience collectively asks of the creators of films and theater. Though well-written, Dogs of Rwanda comes across as a contrived episode that restates that war is hell. Mr. Lewis’ approach may be fresh but the subject matter isn’t, and so even with the compelling performances and excellent presentation, the 70-minute show is an artistic draw. Why is Lewis telling us this?
Co-directors Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano mine all of the visual and emotional potential of the play with their varied and energetic staging that integrates the performances with the music and technical elements.
With the rust-colored, jagged-shaped confined playing area set with rocks, a fuel drum and a panel of a straw hut, scenic designer Frank Oliva wonderfully evokes the locale. Video designer Ryan Belock’s lovely images of clouds, grass and birds flying are projected onto a large panel at an angle suspended from the ceiling that atmospherically accompanies the events that are dramatized.
Lighting designer John Salutz employs a neutral brightness that conveys the sense of the present and a swirling palette of hues that strikingly depict the calamitous past.
Dogs of Rwanda succeeds on many crucial levels but one’s enjoyment of it depends on if one is the in mood for a bleak theatrical travelogue without an imperative purpose.
Dogs of Rwanda (through March 31, 2018)
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.urbanstages.org
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission