We cringe in our seats. People don't do this. Not to other people. Not to any living thing. Let's think of puppy dogs and long walks in the rain. Anything but this. But we can't do it. We have to keep watching. And listening. The actors before us are recounting the horrors of life in Liberia in 2003 as the rebels fought the government of President Charles Taylor.
Opening its 2011 season with this show, Eclipsed, artistic director Genie Croft of The Women's Theatre Project has put Karen Stephens, Lela Elam, Elvire Emanuelle, Renata Eastlick, and Carey Hart in the jungle camp of a rebel leader known only as the C.O. Four are his wives, numbered instead of named, and the fifth is the outsider who tries to save them. The wives have been captured when still children, can barely recall their given names and are unsure of how old they are.
They live in a bullet pocked hovel, eat scraps and wear stolen clothing, are summoned constantly for the C.O.'s brutal pleasures and have only one way out: join the rebel army as soldiers and perhaps get killed. Karen Stephens, worn out and ready to be discarded as wife #1, has been in captivity the longest and rules over Lela Elam, nineteen and pregnant and who is #3. Renata Eastlick as #2 has joined the rebel army to escape the C.O.'s attentions and Elvire Emanuelle is #4, the young girl refugee who hides with the wives until her inevitable discovery and subsequent rapes.
This is an excellent ensemble of five good actors handling a tense story about an horrific subject. Written by Dana Gurira, a Zimbabwean born in the U.S., Eclipsed is relentless in its portrayal of the rebel life. The wives subsist on nothing but cassava, a starchy root. A bag of rice is a treasure. Plundered clothing is picked through and fought over. And then the real horror of rape and murder starts when Eastlick persuades Emanuelle to join her in the army. Barely a teenager, Emanuelle is taught to kill and, worse for her, when rounding up the captured village girls of her own age she has to stand by and watch one of them gang raped to death.
Elvire Emanuelle is the one to watch here. She excels in this piece and that's a hard thing to do when acting with Karen Stephens, Lela Elam, Renata Eastlick and Carey Hart.
The accents sounded authentic and none were lost as the play progressed.
Two quick caveats, however: the shouting and screaming is a little overdone and unfortunately Eclipsed has been awkwardly mounted, utilizing the narrow width of the theatre rather than the much wider length. This works well for the scenes in the realistically crude shelter but problems arise with the outdoor scenes. The actors are forced into the narrow space besides the risers, forcing the audience to crane to the right and making some of the action difficult to see.
Eclipsed is undoubtedly one of The Women's Theatre Project's better productions. See it at Sixth Star Studios, 505 NW 1st Avenue, Ft Lauderdale. Call 954.462.2334 or visit www.womenstheatreproject.com.
Photo by Roger Martin