'Heaven' brings the horrors of war into focus

Music, dance, song, and drama explode across the stage throughout Heaven, a striking new piece by Flying Foot Forum's Joe Chvala and composer Chan Poling. The play, a ground-level exploration of the 1990s Bosnian civil war, sends the audience through the wringer, with the specter of violence and death hovering over all of the characters from beginning to end.

Our eyes into the situation belong to Peter Adamson (Doug Scholz-Carlson), an American photographer who has become fed up with the violence and killing, and his own inability to make any kind of difference in the situation. We mainly follow a few days of his life, when a desperate man named Faruk (Eric Webster) convinces the photographer to head into the country with promises of a previously unseen death camp and the agreement to help Faruk find his missing wife.


From there, it becomes a descent into nightmare, as Adamson and Faruk get waylaid by soldiers and are forced to travel cross country while soldiers systematically hunt and kill their Muslim neighbors.

To be honest, Adamson's story--there's a love interest in there too--is probably the least interesting material here. It's the experiences of the residents from all sides of the conflict that bring the show to full life. These are realized through spoken monologues, songs, and the expressive, masterful dance work that Chvala is famous for. Some of these moments are absolutely stunning, as the propulsive, traditional-folk-inspired score lets the dancers act out horrifying moments, from attempts to escape, to the soldiers hunting them, to a woman's fantasy about striking back at her tormentors as they rape her.

The heaviness is balanced with characters desperate to stay in touch with their humanity, finding moments of humor, love, and even peace. Still, the horror is never far away, from discovering a mass grave of victims or being forced to watch as a friend is brutally murdered. Near the end, Adamson explodes with ineffectual rage at the whole situation, and it's an emotion the whole audience should be feeling by that point (and continue to feel as the world is no safer now than it was 15 years ago) in the show.

The piece has some maddening lapses--Adamson's relationship with a local woman on the run never gets off the ground and features a duet that seems to belong in another show entirely--but the strength of the ensemble and the creative fire behind the project bull their way through any of these hitches. Onstage, Webster provides not just the spark but the fuel for much of the action in a stunning turn as a man desperate to find a shred of former life still intact.

Heaven runs through April 10 at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio.