“Everyone is born with the capacity for cruelty and for mercy.” It’s what we do with that capacity that defines our fate. The University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ production of The Human Capacity examines whether one’s present actions can truly reconcile actions of the past.
Written by University of Maryland Assistant Professor of Playwriting Jennifer Barclay and directed by Michael Dove, The Human Capacity situates the struggle between good and evil in East Berlin in 1972. When Alonza (Riley Bartlebaugh) gives birth to a sickly son, her husband Konrad (Joseph Graf) smuggles him over the Berlin Wall for better medical care. Alonza tries to climb the wall to reach her son and is held captive by Richter, a Stasi officer in disguise (Christian Sullivan), who tortures her and forces the two to divorce so that Alonza can be reunited with her son.
Eighteen years later, the Berlin Wall falls, and “puzzle women” like Leota (Natasha Joyce) work to reassemble the personal records that the Stasi destroyed. Alonza lives alone and believes her son is dead – until one day, she is called in to review her own record. Her life changes forever as Richter comes back into her life, eager to make amends for the damage he caused so many years ago.
Alonza’s character runs the gamut emotionally; we first glimpse her as a smitten young mother-to-be; we see her ten minutes later as a tortured young woman, rendered delirious by the torture she’s undergone. Later in the show she returns as a fearful “shell of a woman,” who is robbed of the best years of her life but who opens up to Richter’s sudden compassion. The versatile Bartlebaugh was truly invested in the character, deftly capturing the dynamics and nuances of each stage of Alonza’s development.
Sullivan seemed more comfortable in disguise as a militant Stasi officer than he did making clumsy attempts at romance later in the show, but maybe that’s telling of his character’s struggle to assume a normal life after ruining the lives of so many.
You can’t help but root for Leota as she tries to piece together the puzzle of the identities of so many. Joyce gave the character both a sense of determination and a sense of remorse, making viewers wonder just why she cares so much. Patrick Joy shone as the earnest Franz, a photographer from West Berlin whom Leota encounters at the wall.
The versatile set, designed by Andrew Cohen, has a dual purpose. It functioned as part of a stark room lined filing cabinets full of records and shelves holding “smell jars” keeping track of citizens. Later in the show, actors knocked down the wall with a startling bang to symbolize the fall of the Berlin Wall. While this graffiti-covered panel remained in the center of the stage for the rest of the show, it didn’t feel like an obstruction. Rather, it allowed for the stage to represent two spaces at once, transcending space and time. Sound designed by Jeff Dorfman added a feeling of intensity and urgency..
A bathtub filled with water and the destruction of the records made a mess onstage, but there were no awkward pauses to reset the stage. Ensemble members in character cleaned up made fluid transitions and ensured there was no lull in the action.
Audience members at the post-show discussion noted that performers never tire of creating art about a surveillance state. On a macro level, The Human Capacity is a timely and relevant commentary on the mass surveillance that still characterizes our society today. But on a more micro level, The Human Capacity is more than that – it’s a story of a family, suffering and the reconciliation of wrongdoing. We have the human capacity for mercy, but it’s up to the audience to decide at the end whether or not it was granted.
The Human Capacity plays through May 9, 2015 at the Kogod Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 in College Park, Maryland. Tickets can be purchased online.