Multidimensional, quasi-interactive plays are gradually becoming a phenomenon in theatre, in which evocative themes and transgressive or incredibly sensitive subject matter can be portrayed and explored with more efficacy, vitriol, and immersive sensorial touches that allow for greater intimacy. Moreover, the nature of multidimensional/interactive plays challenges the talents of the actors by trying their ability to maintain an aura of performatively while committing to the realness that is created by the disassembled fourth wall.
Quantum Theatre’s recent production of Red Hills is an exercise in this sort of theatrical staging, incorporating a multitude of elements, disciplines, provocations and narratives into a story of identity, memory and representation ensconced in the Rwandan genocide. Told through multimedia flashbacks, and intensive interpersonal dialogue, Red Hills tells the story of a David (Scott Atkinson) who is confronted with a letter from an individual from his past who challenges the veracity of the book he wrote chronicling his tumultuous time as a student in the Mirama Hills, wedged between Rwanda and Uganda in the former country’s most bleak chapter. The buildup to the play is phenomenally atmospheric: half of the audience is sent to meet God’s Blessing (Patrick Ssenjovu) and understand his back story, the other half (as I was) was ushered off to meet David, giving a lecture to introduce his potentially problematic memoir. Atmospherically, the opening bifurcation of the audience is a bit misguided, as the elemental intrusions disrupt the introductory narratives provided by the characters that are necessary to connecting the purpose of the plot. That being said, speaking for Atkinson—and Ssenjovu as well, I assume, given his performance throughout the majority of the show—performed admirably and enthusiastically in spite of the unpredictable conditions in which they were besotted. As a general assessment of the piece, a tremendous amount of praise should be afforded to the Atkinson and Ssenjovu, as their performances were simultaneously unwaveringly engaged with one another, and thoroughly committed to audience interaction. Much like their contending with the elements of their outdoor stage, the two men demonstrated versatility in terms of switching between one-on-one interplay, and unique audience conversations.
There is indeed much to be lauded about the production of Red Hills. The grit and realness of the set is incomparable relative to most stagings I have seen of late. Deceptively barebones, the well-sculpted dirt mounds, the derelict vehicles, the small, subtle props thrown here and there exquisitely capture the essence of the war-threatened environment as well as evoking the landscape of memories charred by the traumas of war, conflict and loss. Additionally, the physical set and the multi-media dimensions of the play (specifically the pre-filmed “memory” dialogues) are perfectly executed to coexist and interact with each other in a way that challenges and grips the audience. And while the script was a bit awkward at times, the fluidity of the dialogue was such—and the confidence of the actors was steadfast enough—that the clunkier parts of the play could be disregarded.
That all being said, it is vexing to take part in a play centering on a cataclysmic, emotionally fraught moment in history–one which very critically examines the essence of race, violence, memory, appropriation and potential harmony—from the perspective of two men, with a distinctly masculinized tone. Before seeming too tendentious, I should say that any narrative that focuses and brings to light this type of story, this period of time, is absolutely necessary, and should be valued for the important work it is doing. I certainly do not intend to rob the show of its fantastically conveyed message. However, it is challenging to sit through a play in which women are reduced to tertiary references or digital faces. While innovative, the play’s reduction of non-patriarchal or non-masculine voices is disheartening, given the incredible paucity of female perspective in the media that centers on this period of time. This is not to say the actors and creative team did not do a phenomenal job of working with their material. It is simply to implore that as a theatrical community, given the incredibly troubling times, we want for more in our theatrical representation.
Red Hills runs at Recycling Building on the corner of 32nd Street and Smallman Street through September 10. For tickets and more information click here.