‘Are We at War Yet?’ at University of Maryland captures a global unease

Written by antiwar Russian exile Mikhail Durnenkov, the play's 12 scenes have the feeling that they could happen anywhere.

As audiences enter the University of Maryland’s black-box Kogod Theatre for Mikhail Durnenkov’s Are We at War Yet?, an airport flight display appears on a screen above centerstage. Flight times, destinations, and statuses flicker past while a digital clock counts down (to what?) and mysteriously starts over. Occasionally, grainy black-and-white CCTV footage appears on the screen, just long enough for me to peer into it wondering if I have been captured by the surveillance camera—only to disappear before I can positively identify the images. The screen returns to the flight display and countdown timer.

The flight display disappears and the words “Getting Hooked” appear on the screen. Three young people enter through the walk-through metal detectors at stage right and left amid flashing lights and pulsating techno beats. Sitting down in chairs that evoke airport and train station waiting areas everywhere, absorbed in their phones, each person in turn suddenly begins to comedically describe their distraction of choice—alcohol, online shopping, the addictive games on their phones. The conversation soon takes a dark turn as the characters admit that “in fact, getting sucked in is probably the most fun you can have these days” to distract from their fear of “the people outside.”

F1 (Amberley Kuo), M1 (Raymond Zajic), and M4 (Kiefer Cure) in ‘Are We at War Yet?’ Photo by Lisa Helfert.

THIRD: They’re dangerous, the people outside … so cold … angry …
SECOND: If you give them free rein, they’ll just burn everything. Just a little bit more and …
FIRST: They’ll just release that fire inside. And everything will go up in flames. Do we need that?
SECOND: No, I don’t want to wake up from the smell of smoke, I want to sleep … I don’t even want to think about them, I want to get sucked in, deeper and deeper …
FIRST: Why do they exist, the people outside?
THIRD: Yeah, why? Can they be gotten rid of somehow? Could that happen?
FIRST: Where did they even come from? Those people with the thorny eyes, who are they?

Mikhail Durnenkov, the 2024 Maya Brin Artist-in-Residence at the University of Maryland and a visiting faculty member in the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies, wrote the play (originally titled The War Hasn’t Started Yet) in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. It was first performed in Scotland, where it was commissioned by Glasgow’s Oran Mor pub theater and the National Theatre of Scotland, and has since been staged in the UK, Romania, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia (prior to Durnenkov’s exile for speaking out against the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022), and the United States. In an interview with the University of Maryland’s Global Editorial Staff, Durnenkov notes, “On one hand, the relevance of this play has passed because the war has already begun, on the other hand, it still remains a warning to society and it seems to me that this uneasy feeling in the world that we are seeing has not gone anywhere.” While the question Are We at War Yet? has been definitively answered in Russia, the genius of Durnenkov’s play (and in UMD’s production of it, directed by Yury Urnov, who most recently directed My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion at Woolly Mammoth) lies in the ways that it raises its questions as both particular and universal.

Presented as a series of 12 vignettes, each with its own separate settings, characters, and title (denoted on the screen by projection designer Timothy Kelly) Are We at War Yet? returns again and again to its characters’ sense of alienation—from themselves, from one another, from family members mentioned but never seen on stage, from “the people outside,” and from their sense of humanity. Several scenes feature characters referring to others—or even to themselves—as “animals” or “perverts.” A couple fighting over whether to flee from their home and start over or return while they still can find themselves simultaneously alienated from each other and from their homeland in “Airport.” A paranoid husband accusing a stranger of “doing things with my wife in your mind that I haven’t done with her in eight years of marriage” in “The Pool,” a newsreader knowingly presenting reports that “didn’t happen, but could have” in “The News,” and a teenage gamer who doesn’t realize he is playing with real conflicts in “War Games”—all find themselves alienated from reality itself. Rifts appear and widen between spouses, lovers, neighbors, parents, and children. The generational divide between the young adult son who is willing to pour large sums of money into building his aging parents a country home (“New House”) but unwilling to spend more than a day in their presence before jetting back off to his life in the city and his father, brooding silently in a corner before revealing his true feelings upon his son’s departure, is particularly poignant.

Most productions of the play to date have featured three actors playing all of the roles. UMD’s production expands the cast to six, allowing for actors Amberley Kuo, Mars Burggraf, Raymond Zajic, Cy Escalera, William Nash, and Kiefer Cure to cycle in and out of scenes, change costumes (Doni Rotunno, costume designer), and rotate the metal detectors, waiting-room style chairs, and luggage of Sophia Tepermeister’s sparse yet effective set to create the next scene.

TOP: M3 (William Nash) and M4 (Kiefer Cure); ABOVE: F2 (Mars Burggraf), M1 (Raymond Zajic), and M2 (Cy Escalera), in ‘Are We at War Yet?’ Photos by Lisa Helfert.

The dialogue in Are We at War Yet? is filled with pithy one-liners, absurdist humor, poetic philosophical musings, and layers of social and political commentary. The play’s underlying subtext of the Russia-Ukraine war turns into heavy-handed metaphor when Nash, in a frightening turn as an abusive husband, accuses his wife (Kuo) of cheating on him with a neighbor in “Next Door.” At times, the play risks turning the characters into simply vehicles for the text, yet the actors embody their roles with comedic presence and emotional range that drew audible laughter and gasps from the audience on opening night.

While some aspects of UMD’s production retain specifically Russian elements, whether in Rotunno’s costumes (Kuo’s headscarf and Escalera’s ushanka fur hat as the parents in “New House,” contrasted with Zajic’s business suit as their urbanized son) or in dialogue (Escalera, Burggraf, and Cure discussing old photos of relatives in the Siberian taiga as they sit in a dark “Airport”), the nameless characters and many of their settings (a doctor’s waiting room, a public pool, family homes) give the scenes the feeling that they could happen anywhere.

In this way, UMD’s production of Are We at War Yet? hits exactly as intended. Urnov writes in his director’s note that “my only wish is that when watching the play and looking at its characters, the audience doesn’t immediately think: ‘Oh, it’s about them, it’s not about us.’” During this election year in the United States, with conflicts both real and imagined, interpersonal, inter-communal, and international playing out in our streets and on our screens, Durnenkov’s play, in the words of Vaclav Havel, “stand[s]…as a kind of warning to the West, revealing to its own latent tendencies.” Much like the grainy CCTV footage shown as its viewers file in, Are We at War Yet? is a disorienting mirror that UMD’s American audiences may find glimpses of themselves in—and we may find that it is we ourselves, not the “people outside,” who are the most dangerous of all.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without intermission.

Are We at War Yet? plays through April 26, 2024, presented by the UMD School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies performing in the Kogod Theatre at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, 8270 Alumni Drive, College Park, MD. Tickets (general public, $25; students and youth, $10) can be purchased online.

The program for Are We at War Yet? is available online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are encouraged but not required.

Are We at War Yet?
By Mikhail Durnenko

F1: Amberley Kuo
F2: Mars Burggraf
M1: Raymond Zajic
M2: Cy Escalera
M3: William Nash
M4: Kiefer Cure
F1: Amelia du Bois
F2: Medhanit (Medi) Desta
M1: Keegan Perry
M2: Terrence Bartlebaugh
M3: Hayden Polsky
M4: Matthew Dietrich

Director: Yury Urnov
Dramaturg: Hudson White
Stage Manager: Adam Hawley
Scenic Designer: Sophia Tepermeister
Costume Designer: Doni Rotunno
Lighting Designer: Timothy Kelly
Sound Designer: Michael Kiley
Intimacy Director: Teresa Spencer


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here