Siege Mentality

A FEW YEARS ago I met a woman who endured the 1991 siege of Sarajevo. She, her husband, and several friends hid in the basement of a theater to escape the mortar shelling on the streets above. As days gave way to months, the displaced Sarajevans ripped apart stage curtains for sandbags, burned once-painstakingly crafted sets to keep warm during the harsh winter, and cooked meals of flour paste on a stove fashioned out of a filing cabinet. Things that had value before the siege fast became meaningless next to the demands of survival.

Americans have little experience with the rigors of conflict on their own soil, which explains the made-for-TV response elicited by events like the war in Bosnia or the Gulf War. Destruction, experienced from a distance, becomes perversely appealing when marketed to a mass audience. Gülgün Kayim, a founder of the local performance group Skewed Visions, hopes to challenge such complacency with an original site-specific work, Untitled #1, opening this weekend among the ruins of the evocative dust-encrusted space that once housed the Drake Marble Factory in St. Paul. The stage has already been set through the deployment of "Sniper"--a month-long campaign of postcard mailings that use text and photographs to hint at a "sky gone mad" and the "cruelty that you get in quiet, well-behaved children." Personal responses to the cards will form their own installation at the Drake.

"I have a preoccupation with plays involving war and chaos," admits the 35-year-old playwright, performer, and director, who spent her early childhood amid the turmoil of Cyprus. Kayim, who is Turkish, remembers the experiences of her father, a soldier hired by the British army to "police" the Greeks, and the sensation of "always moving, people scurrying around, and as a child not being able to articulate what was going on." When Kayim was 5, her family moved to London. As an outsider trying to sort out foreign cultures, she later found herself drawn to theater writers in similar predicaments. Antonin Artaud remains a favorite to this day. "His work is notoriously difficult to stage," explains Kayim, "and his interpretation is so wild, but that's the beauty of Artaud. As an artist you can take from him any influences and impressions and make something completely different."

Artaud's play Jet of Blood is a strong presence in Untitled #1, as are Tadeusz Rosewich's The Trap and Fernando Arrabal's Picnic in the Battlefield. These challenging works are rarely seen, which qualifies Kayim's staging as even more of an occasion. The world of Untitled #1 is unsettling: An explosion starts the show, and the performers--shadowy figures first seen immersed in a pile of rubble--escort the audience from one disturbing sight to another. A half-mad figure catalogs personal effects amid a forest of dangling shoes, Franz Kafka glides by on a conveyor belt, a woman obsessively reads the contents of a mound of paper shreds, a couple cowers in a boxcar. Time is suspended as images of Nazi Germany and post-Hiroshima Japan come to mind. The effect is not so much a feeling of danger but rather a creeping, cumulative mistrust of human nature that you can't quite shake.

"History never goes away," says Kayim, alluding to the notion that war is never forgotten or forgiven. "People's memories are very long, although there is a difference between nostalgia and pain. I don't consider history to always necessarily be good, but it's still a part of our lives. It's curious when people make an effort to reject it." (Caroline Palmer)

Untitled #1 is playing at the Drake Marble Factory (60 Plato Blvd. in St. Paul) Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m., through February 28; call 870-2507.

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