Playwright: Colleen Wagner. At: Idle Muse Theatre Company at the Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave. Tickets: 773-340-9438; www.idlemuse.org; $20. Runs through: Aug. 26
Matthew Nischan's funereal prelude as we enter the room is our first hint that we are not in for a light-hearted summer comedy, but Dennis Mae's scenic design ensures our participation right up to the final curtain: playgoers are seated on minimally-accessible risers, elevating them some three feet above a floor covered in a springy substance called "rubber mulch." Oh, and the show's running time is two hours with no intermission. Those willing to endure these discomforts will be recompensed, however.
Our story begins with a soldier named Stetko, condemned for raping and murdering 23 female prisoners in the line of duty. On the brink of his execution, a mysterious lady offers him his life if he agrees to be her slave. She brings him to her home in the country, chains him like a dog and proceeds to beat him severely. This abusive humiliation continues for many days, while her captive stubbornly clings to his bravado. Finally, she takes him to the forest where his victims are buried, where all is revealed.
Colleen Wagner has written more of a Platonic dialogue than a play, as we define that term. We are not told our locale (hints point to Bosnia, though Stetko exhibits American preferences in pop-music and beer), nor how Mejra, his dubious benefactor, arranged his release into her custody. Early on, we are given unmistakable clues to her purpose in torturing him, so suspense is clearly not Wagner's goal. Likewise undisclosed is whether this unlikely pair's lengthy discussionsof topics such as the nature of love and hate, self-preservation vs. individual responsibility, and the value/futility of vengeanceoccur over a period of weeks, months or years before arriving at their wholly-foreseeable conclusion.
"We'll build a monument that will tell the truth about war!" cries Mejra, as she gathers up the symbolistically-fashioned corpses of the dead. The "truth about war" is territory already well-traveled, rendering indispensable the ponderous pace adopted by director Evan Jackson, which succeeds in maintaining a gravity sufficient to camouflage the fundamental absurdity of Wagner's premise. Our patience is also rewarded by the intensely-focused performances of Amy Harmon and Brian Bengtson, who provide respite from the lugubrious polemics with stage business ranging from back-breaking labor recreated so convincingly, you can almost smell the sweat, to the most brutal violence since the Rodney King tapes, courtesy of Greg Poljacik.