“I’m very interested in the impact of war on women,” said Karin Rosnizeck, founder of ExPats Theatre, explaining her choice of The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield for the company’s spring season.
By her account, she read 20 scripts, all by European playwrights who were relatively unknown in the U.S. But when she came upon this one, she knew she had a winner.
“Body of a Woman is not only about women and war”—which is ExPat’s theme for 2023—“but it portrays sexual violence as a weapon,” she told me in an interview conducted over coffee and croissants at an outdoor café hidden behind a shopping mall in Friendship Heights.
“The violence, which takes the form of a gang rape before the play begins, doesn’t stop when the war ends. It continues with a pregnancy,” she said, adding that the rape itself is an act of dehumanization.
Here is how Kate, one of the two characters in the play, describes rape in an ethnic war:
These “soldiers” don’t rape for animal pleasure, or out of sexual frustration.
For them, rape is a form of military strategy aimed at demoralizing the enemy…
In today’s ethnic wars, rape fulfills the same purpose as the destruction of the
enemy’s houses, his places of worship, his cultural heritage and his values.
Coming now, in the shadow of Russia’s continuing assault on Ukraine, the play is painfully prescient.
Set in the immediate aftermath of the 1990s Balkan War, Body of a Woman is about the conflict between two women who meet at a medical facility in Germany. Kate (Anika Harden) is an American psychologist who is part of a commission investigating mass graves, and Dorra (Danielle Scott) is the rape survivor who is pregnant.
At the beginning, Dorra is dysfunctional. There is no communication between the two women.
Kate, who is Harvard-trained, tries to address Dorra’s trauma by using Freudian terms, objectifying Dorra at first as “the subject” in her clinical observations.
Slowly, Dorra gets angry, forcing Kate to see her as a human being. Defying the clinical observations, she summons up sarcasm, describing the brutality and self-hatred of the “Balkan man.” Here are a few lines from her monologue:
[You, Balkan man] go drinking every day after work until 10PM…then you go home… spend a few minutes with the kids…or your wife… Your wife who is nothing but a childbearing machine. The only thing she knows is how to nag her husband from the moment he comes in…
Dorra speaking as “Balkan man”:
…we’ve missed the boat, we’re the scum of Europe, we don’t even know where we really come from, we’ve never had a proper country, we’ve never been independent, we’ll never free ourselves of communism…
According to Rosnizeck, Kate is quintessentially American, a believer in progress and one of those who intervene when they don’t really understand what’s at stake.
Kate tells Dorra, ‘Your belly is a mass grave. It’s rotten.” But there is a baby inside the rottenness, and the baby, Kate says, is worth saving.
But Dorra disagrees. She sees the baby as a monster. And she wants it gone.
“Kate needs Dorra,” Rosnizeck explained. “She needs to feel that she has the power to heal and save. That’s because Kate is a descendant of those who left Europe behind. Her grandfather, who emigrated from Ireland, saw Europe as a ‘pile of stones,’ meaning that the burdens of the past are too heavy to lift. Instead, he looks to the future. In America, he works as a stonecutter, helping to build skyscrapers in Manhattan.
“Like many European plays,” she continued, “Body of a Woman uses metaphor to depict the clash between old and new. The scenes are like fragments of dialog.”
To me, the dialog is almost staccato, evocative, and more poetic than narrative. Which is not surprising, since the French-Rumanian playwright, Matéi Visniec, started out as a poet. The title of the play is an ironic twist on the romantic poem “Body of a Woman” by Pablo Neruda.
Visniec has called it a “series of vignettes, both real and surreal.” There is no consistent or logical time frame.
Interestingly, Rosnizeck pointed out, the playwright does not specify Dorra’s nationality nor her ethnicity or religion. She is as Balkanized as the region, her identity deliberately ambivalent. The only thing that matters is that she is angry—at God and man—and has lost her faith.
Although they’ve never met in person, Rosnizeck has enjoyed a close working relationship with the playwright. “We’ve been emailing back and forth in French, shortening scenes and cutting references to places and events that American audiences might not understand.”
An award-winning playwright, poet, and journalist, Visniec left Rumania in 1987 when his plays were banned under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. He was granted political asylum in France and since then has produced more than 20 plays.
The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield was written in 1997. It has now been performed around the world and translated into 30 languages. In the U.S., there have been productions in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
“I’ve been working on the play for months,” Rosnizeck laughed, admitting, “When I like a play, I get obsessed. I do a lot of research. And I share it with the cast.”
She also shared it with me. Included in the list of background materials were descriptions of 21 films about the war in the Balkans—a dozen full-length features (including one made by Angelina Jolie) and nine documentaries—plus many books and articles and a list of textual references and definitions.
At ExPats, which Rosnizeck founded in 2019, she looks for contemporary plays by European writers who are not yet well-known in this country. The company was named this year’s Outstanding Emerging Theatre and will be honored at the Helen Hayes Awards next month.
“DC is a perfect choice for ExPats, since this city has a large international population and many sources, through the embassies, for fund-raising, sponsorship, and performance,” she added.
Although she was born and educated in Germany, Rosnizeck considers herself more Bohemian than Teutonic. After getting her master’s in French and English literature, she spent the first half of her career in international relations, working as a cultural affairs specialist at the U.S. Consulate in Munich. That’s where she met her husband, Darrell West, an American who taught at Brown and is now a public policy expert at the Brookings Institute.
Since moving here, nearly 20 years ago, she’s been on stage and off, moving easily from acting to translating, dramaturgy, and directing at theaters throughout the DC-Baltimore area.
“I found my niche,” she said, pointing out that ExPats is a perfect way to combine her passions—theater, literature, and international relations—and share them with an appreciative audience.
The company is one of several performing arts groups currently housed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, located at the heart of the H Street corridor.
“I love the Atlas,” Rosnizeck said. “It serves an incredibly diverse community, combines all the performing arts, and is wonderful at handling ticket sales!”
The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield plays from April 28 through May 21, 2023, presented by ExPats Theatre performing at Lab Theatre II in the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Showtimes are 7:30 pm Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and 2:30 pm Sundays. For tickets ($20–$40) call the box office at 202-399-6764 or go online.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission. Recommended for adults only. Mature themes include mild language and sexual content.
COVID Safety: Face masks are required at all times for all patrons, visitors, and staff regardless of vaccination status in all indoor spaces in the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Masks may be briefly removed when actively eating or drinking in designated areas. See Atlas’ complete COVID policy here.
Talkbacks following Sunday matinees
May 7: cast, director, and designers
May 14: playwright Matéi Visniec participating online from Paris
The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield
By Matéi Visniec
(translation by Alison Sinclair)
Directed by Karin Rosnizeck
Cast: Danielle Scott as Dorra and Anika Harden as Kate
Set Design: John Jones
Costume Design: Alisa Mandel
Media Design: Nitsan Scharf
Sound Design: John Moletress
Lighting Design/Fight Choreographer: Ian Claar
Stage Manager: Keche Arrington
Artistic Associate: Brian Shaw
Dialect Coach: Mary Mayo