Writing a play about a subject like genocide raises innumerable obstacles. If the tone is oppressively "serious," you risk either losing the audience members altogether or letting them off the hook with self-congratulatory tears rather than moving them to discussion and action. If the work is too stylized and "clever," the piece itself might come across as self-congratulatory, and you can lose an emotional connection with the audience. If the play is too "light," you might be interpreted as glib and as not giving the requisite weight to the material. With Lemkin's House, playwright Catherine Filloux has opted for humor and stylization, with mixed results. Her reasoning for this strategy is sound, and likely threefold. The subject itself is so potentially overwhelming that there is no way to "do justice" to its horror through realistic representation. Even if it were possible to evoke such horror, in fact, it may not be desirable; well-established theories of political theater suggest that neither bombarding audience members with unbearable images nor moving them to cathartic moments of emotion is likely to lead them to engage an issue politically. And make no mistake: Filloux intends this play to be a call to action. Finally, the play is in part a tribute to and celebration of its titular hero, Raphael Lemkin; as such, too oppressive an atmosphere would probably not have seemed appropriate.
Lemkin, who lost 49 relatives, including his mother, to the Holocaust, is credited with inventing the term "genocide," authored the first draft of "The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide," and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize seven times. He suffered a fatal heart attack in 1959, at age 59. Filloux, who has been writing plays about genocide since the early 1990s, says she found Lemkin to be "a historical soul mate on [her] journey."
The play itself is set in Lemkin's afterlife, which Filloux has conceived as his "house." Visitors from the past and present occasionally wander through the house, enlisting Lemkin's help in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. "When I was alive, I was haunted by the dead," Lemkin says. "Now that I'm dead, I'm haunted by the living." These visitations, and his relative impotence in effecting real change, lead Lemkin to question the value of legislation and treaties, but never to turn his back on his possibly quixotic quest to end large-scale atrocity.
Given the unassailable agenda and inspiration of the piece, and its heartrending relevance to ongoing events, it feels both curmudgeonly and politically regressive to point out that neither the play nor the production works very well. The best of intentions often fail to result in good art, and Lemkin's House is no exception. The jokes are only intermittently funny, and some of the dialogue intended to be touching is strained and awkward.
The design and direction felt uninspired. Furniture was arranged in a standard acting-class configuration, with everything tilted at a 45-degree angle from the audience. The "house" dutifully fell apart as per stage directions, but these and other moments were interpreted quite literally and with little consideration for aesthetic impact. If there was a certain Dada-ist poetry in rice and shoes falling from the rafters of Lemkin's posthumous home, it was undermined somewhat by this dutiful and dogged approach.
As Lemkin, John Daggett delivered his lines in an almost vaudevillian manner, partly in reaction to descriptions of his character as "annoying" and partly in service of the script's self-conscious theatricality. The supporting cast moved from character to character competently enough but ultimately didn't leave much of an impression. One suspects that both the cast and the director were so concerned about serving the playwright's vision that they missed the opportunity to put their own creative stamps on the production itself. While many directors say their job is to "respect the playwright's intentions," there are times when this approach can paradoxically do a disservice to the script by watering down the play's impact in production.
The most compelling aspect of this text and its performance are the pieces of information that filter through the action and encourage further research. Don't expect great theater if you go to Lemkin's House, but if you're looking to network with activist-minded peers, you might want to check it out anyway. Many of the performances are followed by talkbacks and panel discussions with anti-genocide activists and politicians, and if the audience at this performance was any indication, many of the theater's patrons will be there as much for the panel as for the play.