Two films, Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) and As If I Am Not There (2010) directed by Juanita Wilson, depict the heartbreaking sexual violence that took place, among many other atrocities, during the 1990s Bosnian war. ExPats Theatre is to be congratulated for bringing to DC Matéi Visniec’s The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield (1997), which explores and exposes this critical subject. Such crimes compel the duty of remembrance. As an international city, we need the drama that illuminates them.
Romanian author Matéi Visniec‘s 1997 play has been produced in multiple countries. After his works were censored by the Ceausescu Regime, Visniec left Romania in 1987 and applied for political asylum in France. His literary works have won many awards, and his plays have been translated into more than 30 languages.
The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield remains profoundly relevant. The topic of sexual violence in war is often in the headlines. On April 19, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin testified in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that Russia’s invading forces are using rape and torture to sow terror among civilians in Ukraine. In March, the Bosnian state court in Sarajevo confirmed an indictment regarding crimes against prisoners held at Bosnian Serb-run detention camps during the war. The charges against five ex-guards included torture, murder, and allowing the rape of inmates.
The play features two women who have been acutely affected by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Kate (Anika Harden, she/her) is an American psychologist who had a breakdown after participating in a commission investigating mass graves. She has not seen her family, including her two children, for six months.
Dorra (Danielle Scott, she/they) is a survivor of gang rape and is pregnant. We learn little or nothing about her besides her trauma. Such victims often face the danger of defining themselves this way. Both have been transferred to a German NATO treatment center, in Kate’s case at her own request.
When we first see Dorra she is collapsed in extremis on a bed, in a hospital room, her back to the audience. Kate then stands before us, reciting a list of terms that suggest that Freudian concepts such as “infantile ethnic sadism” can apply to ethnic and nationalist violence.
The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield is a record of Kate’s and Dorra’s complicated and sometimes humorous efforts to connect. But the two women do have hope. And Visniec’s soaring and poetic speech will be among the finest language you will hear on any Washington stage this season.
Here for instance is Dorra’s magnificent monologue to her unborn child:
DORRA: “I’m here.” Who are you? “It’s me.” Who? “Me.” I don’t know who you are. “Stop pretending. You know exactly who I am.” No, I don’t. I don’t know you. You don’t exist. “Yes, I do. I do exist. And it’s you who are going to bring me into the world.” No, I’ll never bring you into the world. “Yes, you will, you have to.” No, I don’t; I don’t have to bring you into the world. “You don’t have any choice. You’re my mother. And it’s a mother’s job to bring a child into the world.” You don’t have the right to be brought into the world. You’re a war child. You don’t have any parents. You were born of horror. You are a child of horror. “Listen to me, if you don’t bring me into the world, I’ll scream.”
Karin Rosnizeck (ExPats founding artistic director), who directs, brings us arresting images: A pre-show projection, accompanied by classical music, of celebrated paintings depicting women being raped. Speeches by each actor in backlit silhouette. The two women drinking and laughing as they rip up a map of the Balkan states.
Harden as Kate has an air of compassion that belies the coolness of her clinical assessments of Scott’s Dorra, and her fine performance compensates somewhat for the ambivalence that the character of Kate can sometimes provoke. Kate’s need to heal Dorra is deeply sympathetic. But although her psychological methods may be sound, they can be perplexing.
For instance, Kate presumes to treat Dorra as a patient. But isn’t Kate a patient too? Her attempts to “cure” Dorra sometimes seem like therapy for herself, which is suggested in the script. She repeatedly makes efforts to connect with Dorra by taking her to meet the other patients, to the lake, etc. But for someone as traumatized as Dorra, this might, and indeed does, seem intrusive. When Dorra asks Kate if she wants to hear about the rape, Kate says, “No.” Isn’t she supposedly trying to draw Dorra out?
While an anguished Dorra is attempting to express her feelings about the child, Kate begins a long monologue about her own grandfather. Kate even tells Dorra that Dorra’s belly is a mass grave, which is cold comfort to a pregnant rape survivor. This is not something I believe a woman, especially a mother, would ever say to another woman who is pregnant, especially one she is trying to save.
Kate’s need to heal is certainly sincere. And her analysis of rape as a weapon of war is precise and accurate. But she herself is troubled, and in denial about exactly how much. She hides behind a mask of professional competence.
Freud’s theories, which she postulates, provide a provocative intellectual framework to the play but do not seem relevant to the matter at hand. Under the (as far as I know) uncontroversial concept of “join the patient,” Kate would be better off if she simply shut up and listened. But then there would be no play.
Danielle Scott plays Dorra to preternatural perfection. Her monologue regarding the “Balkan man” is electrifying. In the evenings, with his wife, he is sad…
DORRA (as “Balkan man”): His soul feels pain. He begins to get obsessed and tortured by great metaphysical questions. You don’t understand the first thing about history, my dear. No, she doesn’t understand anything at all. She doesn’t understand that her man has been struck by a melancholia passed down to him by his ancestors. She doesn’t understand why he suddenly starts to question the meaning of life… In the evening, having knocked back several dozen bottles of beer with his friends, Balkan man starts to despair at the sheer inadequacy of language.
As for Kate, Dorra is skeptical of her Americanism, her privilege, her psychological theories. She finds Kate naïve and her attitude colonial. Although Kate, the supposedly more stable professional, can be patronizing, Dorra seems to believe there is a more ironic truth. She would probably not express it this way, but when it comes to suffering, Dorra views herself as an aristocrat, Kate as bourgeois.
The climax comes when the two women, drinking together, bond in a hilarious scene in which maps are torn up and thrown, populations are celebrated and mocked, and a path to healing becomes obliquely possible.
Playwright Matéi Visniec’s insight into nationalism and ethnic violence is incisive, even prophetic. He says in an interview reprinted in the program:
I observe with sadness that the inter-ethnic conflicts are sometimes extremely savage. I think these conflicts arise after long periods of toxic indoctrination. And when the violence begins, the indoctrinated people act as if they have totally lost their minds. It is only after enormous suffering and long periods of destruction that the indoctrinated protagonists begin to reflect and ask themselves the question: what if we have been manipulated and this war is useless?
The theme of toxic indoctrination (Fox News, anyone?) is clearly pertinent to the U.S. today.
Ex Pats’ production is presented with authority and style. The projections (media design by Nitsan Scharf) are exceptionally handsome and provide historical context when needed. John Moletress’ skillful sound design includes (yes) rock music.
DC has rightly welcomed ExPats, which received the John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre this year. The recognition is richly deserved. What a pleasure it will be to see what they do next. As impresario Diaghilev said to Jean Cocteau, “Astonish me!” Chances are they will.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield plays through May 21, 2023, presented by ExPats Theatre performing in Lab Theatre II at 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.
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
‘When I like a play, I get obsessed’: Karin Rosnizeck on ‘The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield (interview by Ravelle Brickman, April 23, 2023)