In the 1990s during the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina, over 100,000 people were killed and more than 2 million people displaced in one of the most horrific set of human-inflicted tragedies since WWII. Heaven, a new work by Flying Foot Forum, directed by Joe Chvala with music by Chan Poling (The Suburbs, The New Standards) is an ambitious and heart-wrenching piece of dance theater about the impact of that conflict. This emotionally-charged, human story left me feeling as if I’d been punched in the gut. Never heavy-handed, it educates without descending into didacticism. And with the news of the struggles in Egypt and Libya on the news each evening, I wonder: is there a more timely and important work being performed on a Twin Cities stage right now?
Heaven follows American freelance photographer, Peter Adamson (a strong performance by Doug Scholz-Carlson) as he travels through Bosnia documenting the horrific events of the war, accompanied by his translator Faruk (another stand-out performance by Eric Webster) The play opens in a bar called Café Heaven in the early 1990s about the time the former Yugoslavian nation broke up. (We learn from the proprietor, perhaps not so coincidentally, that Café Heaven is just across the street from Café Hell.) The first full-ensemble street dance and song (“All Are Welcome”) set the tone for the entire production with choreography worthy of a West Side Story fight scene, and songs of Broadway caliber. (I heard one audience member wonder out loud after the show if a cast recording would be available. If one was, I’d buy it.)
Though I strained to hear the singers in the first few minutes after curtain, the mix got better as the evening wore on and I presume this will continue to improve as the run continues. There’s a lot to keep track of here, and for the most part it all went off without a hitch.
Director and choreographer Joe Chvala succeeds in uniting the show’s many winning elements. The versatile and attractive set by Joel Sass is a hit, music direction by Jake Endres (with help from Balkan music consultant Natalie Nowytski) is equally stunning, and there are too many memorable performances from the nearly two-dozen-strong ensemble to mention. To the credit of the entire cast (though the show is performed mainly in English) language consultant and translator Stele Osmancevic and dialect coach Joseph Papke had me totally taken in by the dialog (and even some complete songs!) in Serbo-Croatian. (Subtitles provided during those sections were projected on the back wall of the theater.)
For a brand new show, Heaven is already a tight production that could benefit from only a few cuts; overall it’s well-constructed, with deft use of refrain and reprise. Chan Poling’s songs drive the action and are never irrelevant, and when I left the theater, I believe I had gotten one of the main points of the show. More of a question or challenge, really, posed by Adamson in one of his stints as narrator: “Do you keep your eyes open, or not?” This is theater that grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you in your seat.
A woman near me sobbed through part of the second act. This show is that powerful. I can’t help but direct you to the Dowling Studio to see it.
Heaven is at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio through April 10th.
Special presentation: On Tuesday, March 29th at 7PM World Without Genocide presents “Exhumations and Examinations – Rule of Law in Bosnia and Kosovo.” For tickets to that event, visit http://worldwithoutgenocide.org/registermarch29