On Michael Najjar’s Direction of Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad

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The play begins in the office of the notary, Lebel. He is reading the will and final wishes of Nawal, mother of twins, Janine and Simon. Lebel hands out a letter from Nawal to each. One is instructed to find the brother he never knew existed, and the other is instructed to find her father who contrary to their belief is still alive. The twins are shocked; the son in particular fumes in rage and threatens to ignore the final wishes of his mother, a mad woman he feels he barely knew. But Janine cannot. She sits in silence at Lebel’s office holding on to her envelope knowing instinctively that it contains the key to her mother’s secrets. Janine is a mathematician. She will approach this logically. And it will all make sense at the end. But as she will discover, Civil War has its own logic.

The play is presented in Hope Theater, a flexible black box. The stage is at the center and the audience is seated on two sides of the stage facing toward each other. Najjar’s clever use of traverse staging provides a symbolic civil division creating two opposing sides watching the same narrative, and each other. The space is divided into three main playing areas on stage, bookended with two walls on either side that also serve as screens for video projections. The catwalk to one side up above, houses three chairs where the three actors that play each phase of Nawal’s life preside over the unraveling of her tale.

    "Scorched" byWajdi Mouawad, directed by Michael Najjar at the University of Oregon.

“Scorched” byWajdi Mouawad, directed by Michael Najjar at the University of Oregon.

The play is constructed as a puzzle. It moves back and forth in time and from location to location. To Najjar’s credit, the complicated narrative clearly comes through in his fluid staging. Najjar successfully and selectively utilizes video and image projections to transport us to Lebanon, to visualize Nawal’s awakening in a hospital room in Canada, and to foreshadow specific emotionally heightened moments. In one scene the Nawal’s past and present are projected across from each other and we hear Nawal’s voice as the three Nawal’s watch the scene from above. In another instance, Lebel’s office is to one side, as Janine holds a classroom at the opposite side, while Simon establishes a boxing rink at the center where he expresses his frustration. The three scenes occurring simultaneously compete for our attention the way contrasting emotions of anger, logic and duty pull away at Simon, Janine, and Lebel. The minimally elegant and specific scenic design maximizes the use of space and supports the flexibility the play requires. A seven-member masked chorus dressed in post-apocalyptic gauze head wraps moves the scenery and helps shift the space. Their stark presence serves as a reminder of the universality of war and its horror. Costume design particularly shines in Najjar’s production not only because of its sheer scope but also the detail and specificity with which each character is distinguished. From Lebanese village-specific embroidery patterns and regional scarf-wrapping customs to clear representations of urban fashion of specific eras, the costume design helps us stay on top of the moving target that is Nawal’s life story.

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