NY Theater Review Sandi Durell
In a remote village in Rwanda 1981, a girls’ Catholic school, “so beautiful that even God goes on vacation here” (uttered by Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera), does his best to keep the students and the nun, Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford), in their respective places when an unusual religious experience occurs. It seems that Alphonsine (Nineka Okafor) has been experiencing visions and trances as she sees the Virgin Mary.
This is the premise of Katori Hall’s (The Mountaintop, Hurt Village) transfixing new play at the Pershing Square Signature Center subtlety and brilliantly directed by Michael Greif.
Alphonsine is accused of hysteria or being possessed by the devil. But then her schoolmate Anathalie (Mandi Masden) soon has the same experience. They are woefully chastised by Sister Evangelique as she enviously accuses the girls as liars, insisting the Father punish them for such blasphemy. But then the girls’ leader of the pack, tough tormenting Marie-Clare (Joaquina Kalukango), who makes hateful references about the differences between Tutsi and Hutus, falls into a trance, causing a change in perspective, not only hers but that of the Vatican which sends an expert to test them for confirmation and validity, Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith). All the while the local Bishop Gahamanyi (Brent Jennings), who comes calling, sees the financial potential in putting their little Village on the map, especially when villagers from far and wide hear about the trinity and make their way to the school to witness the wonder.
All appears to be going in the right direction until the girls foresee blood and horror in the on-coming genocide between the Tutsi and the Hutus. The first Act ending is mesmerizing, the play presenting innumerable chills and thrills. I found myself eager for Act II to begin.
The entire Diamond Theater is creatively used to stage this remarkable play, a forerunner to the true happenings of the 1994 slaughter. The girls are a beautiful singing choir (music Michael McElroy) and the theatricalities presented amaze (scenic design Rachel Hauck; lighting Ben Stanton; sound Matt Tierney; special effects Greg Meeh; aerial effects Paul Rubin). Costumes are by Emily Rebholz.
Katori Hall has based this writing on research she made in Rwanda and, for her own reasons, decided to focus on the religious wonders that claimed the participants; how we choose to believe or not and how politics always rears its ugly head; never allowing the horrors and inhumanities to show themselves. The ensemble of actors each give magnificent high level performances. You will think about this for a long time.
“Our Lady of Kibeho” thru Dec. 7th www.signaturetheatre.org 480 West 42nd St. 212 244-7529, running time 2 hrs. 20 min.
*Photos: Joan Marcus