Review: ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ at Signature Theatre

Arresting and compelling are two words that describe Signature Theatre’s fiery production about survival in a society racked by long-term natural disasters and deadly human-made upheavals. Playwright Heather McDonald’s magisterial Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity is having a blistering premiere at Signature in its snugly outfitted black-box ARK Theatre.

Felicia Curry, Yesenia Iglesias, and Holly Twyford in 'Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity' at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Felicia Curry, Yesenia Iglesias, and Holly Twyford in ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Under the penetrating direction of Nadia Tass, Masterpieces is bracing and unsettling. In its briskly paced, intermissionless 95 minutes, Masterpieces has scenes of overpowering clarity with exquisite interpersonal intimacy juxtaposed against moments of intense vengeful staged violence, both verbal and physical. Masterpieces is pensive and rational, then turns emotionally hell-bent.

Masterpieces focuses on three desperate women. Each of the three is on an improbable journey to find a modicum of hope and healing under the most incongruous circumstances. Will they find any common healing shreds of humanity or only suffer deeper wounds from the sharp shards they encounter from one another? Will there be any shelter from the storms they endure?

The three women are trapped in a ravaged museum in an unnamed country being used as an interrogation center and prison. Think hints of a fictional Abu Ghraib. The one-time museum may also be a home for wayward large zoo animals. Or maybe not.

Each of the characters featured in Masterpieces is in the museum-turned-prison for a different reason. Each undergoes a major transformation from what is first seen in order to save something or someone.

There is Layla, an elegantly attired, precisely-spoken academic with a slide show clicker in hand, a fine art restorer from a Western county who wants to save ravaged art. Even when Layla is ravaged by dire situations, Holly Twyford portrays her with self-possessed aplomb. Yesenia Iglesias is a marvel as the at-first-glance demurely attired, soft-spoken Nadia, a young woman from the unnamed country who has rudimentary nursing skills gleaned from watching television. Her inner strength is one of intense ferocity. Felicia Curry plays Mitra, a young firebrand and the military captor of Layla and Nadia. Will she move beyond the brutal young zealot who is taking part in the revolution sweeping her country as first faced?

Singly and together through scene after scene, Curry, Iglesias, and Twyford hold attention. Even in moments when I wanted to look away, I did not. I could not. I knew I was in the hallowed presence of a powerful work raising issues about “civilization” and human beings not often glimpsed on the stage in the painstaking and muscular manner that McDonald wrote and Tass directed.

Holly Twyford and Yesenia Iglesias in 'Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity' at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Holly Twyford and Yesenia Iglesias in ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The technical design team added commanding aspects to Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’s non-verbal authority about a journey into uncharted territory. Scenic designer James Kronzer converted the black-box ARK into a rubble-filled, debris-strewn gray landscape with some well-placed rock cairns of small stones that could be either memorials or landmarks. Lighting design by Sherrice Mojgani, sound design and original music by James Bigbee Garver, costume design by Kathleen Geldard, and projections designed by Zachary G. Borovay add layer upon layer to the production’s impact on the psyche of those witnessing Masterpieces.

What else can I say to entice you to see Masterpieces? Well, there are some well-placed references to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), unexpected discussion about Radiohead vs. Opera as music, and the strategic presence of J.D. Salinger’s classic “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” (a short story that recounts a sergeant’s meeting with a young girl before being sent into combat in World War II).

Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity is thrilling theater. It is no spoiler to say that Masterpieces is a creation, both script and production, not unlike the familiar concept of chiaroscuro–when a painting is full of deliberate strong bold contrasts between light and dark. Masterpieces is also deeply ingrained with the Japanese concept of Kintsukuroi (“golden repair”), a method to repair broken pottery using powdered gold so that even with “flaws” seen, the object remains beautiful.

Masterpieces is an encounter well worth making, especially for those with adventure in their hearts and souls who want to cross some boundaries into the brutal and the eloquent. The production took my breath away with its verisimilitude about human cruelty (fight choreography by Robb Hunter) and human decency. It left me more deeply shaken as I wondered to myself what would I save of my own known “civilized” world, if I only had a few minutes to decide and a cardboard shoebox at my disposal.

Masterpieces will not be for everyone. But it was for me, and I gave it hearty applause.

Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, with no intermission.

Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity plays through April 7, 2019, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets, call 703-820-9771 or go online.

Note: Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity marks Signature’s second production as part of The Heidi Thomas Writer’s Initiative, following 4,380 Nights by Annalisa Dias. Through a grant from The Jenna and Paul Segal Foundation, Broadway Producer Jenna Segal will sponsor a world premiere by a female playwright with a female director for the next five years. The grant also gives Signature the resources to help playwrights secure second and third productions by bringing artistic directors from across the country to Signature during the run of their plays to meet with the playwright and plan for future productions of the work.