"Am I awake or asleep?" That uncertainty, voiced by characters throughout the International WOW Company's Auto Da Fe, permeates the production, which works hard to create a dreamlike aesthetic. Nate Lemoine's set design drapes the deep floor and backdrop of the large playing space in blue tarp, with white ladders of varying heights providing definition against the otherwise seamless expanse. Jullian J. Mesri's sound design provides near-constant ambiance setting music; a fog machine provides a lot of fog. Under the direction of International WOW Artistic Director Josh Fox, Auto Da Fe would benefit from a greater sense of dramatic clarity, even as it attempts to stage foggy consciousness and indefinite geography. An Odyssey adaption by Japanese playwright Masataka Matsuda, the International WOW production marks the play's English language premiere. Inernational WOW has over a decade of experience in international collaboration, and its rendering of Auto Da Fe is at its strongest in its use of multiculturalism to evoke life after war. With a 28-member ensemble of diverse ethnicities and nationalities, Auto Da Fe is perhaps among the most genuinely multicultural productions to play Off-Broadway in recent memory; rather than localize this U.S. translation of a Japanese adaption of the Greeks, International WOW integrates multicultural aesthetics to weave a story that approaches timelessness. Piles of empty shoes and rent clothing, which have become near artistic shorthand for human disasters ranging from the dead of Vietnam to the Dirty Wars of Argentina to the Holocaust, are put to good use in this production, effectively invoking a history of global horrors without needing to identify a singular crisis.
The young ensemble executes each movement with a lot of dedication; a greater degree of actorly precision might help avoid the preciousness which plagues the production. Loosely following a soldier called Odyseaus A through a war ravaged landscape, Auto Da Fe relies on scenes and images rather than on linear plot. Most of the ensemble remains onstage for the duration of the production, and Fox clearly has paid a lot of attention to stage pictures created by the large cast. At an intermissionless hour and forty minutes, however, the imagistic production grows tedious even before its penultimate scene overwhelms every other aspect of the production.
As Auto Da Fe nears its end, a small group of soldiers discusses rape as a tactic of war. An angry soldier argues for miscegenation as genocide: by raping and impregnating local women, he says, the soldiers will systematically put an end to the enemy's race. Next, the company's young women and a few young men cue up to to be raped by the soldiers, played by young male theater types doing their self-serious best at performing militaristic aggression. One of the soldiers takes a woman from the front of the line and shoves her toward the rapist, who throws her onto a pile of rags. Were the scene to end there, it might have more powerfully suggested the horrors to come, but this lengthy production is unsatisfied with brief images suggestive of futurity. Like most scenes in the production, the rape sequence goes on much too long, undoing its own power in the process.
Where Auto Da Fe's other overlong sequences tend to start intriguing and become cloying, the rape scene becomes flat out offensive. If it's at all possible to depict a marathon rape sequence theatrically, doing so would require more mighty exactitude than the young Auto Da Fe ensemble possesses. Further weakening the horrors of rape, as the long line of rape victims take turns on the clothing pile, yet another member of the ensemble speaks into a microphone of his mother's sad response to his father's infidelities. Recitation of memory fragments occur throughout the production, so at its least inappropriate, the spoken-word memory of familial strife provides an alternate focus to the rapist; at its most idiotic, it suggests a parallel between adultery and rape.
Auto Da Fe has many beautiful design elements and a hardworking young cast. Within the excess, the production has good moments evocative of the International WOW Company's more successful work. Good intentions undoubtedly went into the making of Auto Da Fe but especially given the horrors of its subject matter, good intentions are insufficient. Military rape is the most graphic aspect of war addressed by the play, and presenting it in the manner used here reveals the WOW Company at its most immature, incapable of evoking the horrors of rape and overpowering the good work that went into other parts of the production.