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‘Rubble Women’ ensemble shows the primal power of women moving mountains together
“Rubble Women,” the new piece by Vashon’s internationally acclaimed UMO Ensemble, focuses on Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the second World War, with scarce food, continuing gunfire, graves being dug in front of homes and residential buildings demolished.
Because 15 million German men were either dead or in prison camps, the job of rebuilding fell to the women, and these “Trummerfrauen” or “rubble women” did it mostly with their bare hands, picking up stones and piling them up for removal.
One of the main and continuing actions in the play involves seven women (accompanied by an eighth drumming on a suitcase) picking up rocks and passing them around in a circle until they reach a wheelbarrow.
That circular movement on a bare concrete floor opens the show, accompanied by a powerful keening wail coming from all eight, a sound of both pain and power, each woman doing what she can to create the whole concerted action, the hellish repetition of which promises an escape from the pain and a return to civil society built piece by piece.
By the end of the play, the rebuilding is a work in progress, but “Rubble Women” is not.
It’s a completely realized work that accounts for lead creator Martha Enson’s goal, to discover what “motivates and inspires women to endure, to literally move mountains, through all kinds of obliterating pain and difficulty.”
The answer seems to come in the play’s last line, spoken by Enson: “No one can do what needs to be done but you.”
The line, as a summary about taking full responsibility for what life presents one with, seems true to the script’s overall meaning: Eight women find the strength to go on in unendurable circumstances.
But the final sentence emphasizes individual effort without fully accounting for what is also clearly true, that the eight women succeed and survive because they work together in mutual support and love.
Actually, the show’s most important costuming decision points to Enson’s own awareness of the importance of the group effort: The women all wear similar gray aprons as if to demonstrate they are a team, and the uniformity at the same time tends to obliterate the individuality of each woman the way uniforms do.
The characters are hard to distinguish from each other, but Enson has included a second element. Each women is a rubble woman, but also based on a particular archetypal character from myth, history or fairy tales, all women who struggled in difficult situations: Hecuba, the Little Match Girl, Psyche, the Handless Maiden, Electra, Scheherazade, Philomela and Penelope.
The play’s structure seems to alternate between rubble moving and the long Grimm’s fairy tale of the handless maiden, which is acted out by the women in song, dance and poetry.
How all of the very complex tales of the seven other women illuminate the experience is not as clear.
Hecuba is the Queen of Troy in the Trojans’ war with the Greeks told most famously in Homer’s “Iliad,” and she famously wept at the death of her son Hector, slain by Achilles.
But Enson’s script isn’t that explicit about Hecuba’s connection to her rubble women, and the same applies to the other connections.
Director Sheila Daniels hints that the archetypal back stories may have worked as much to inform the rubble women of their character’s motivations as anything.
But it seems fruitless to try to figure out such connections.
“Rubble Women” is not a treatise. It is what Daniels calls it, a ritual, a powerful plaint almost at times beyond words that rewards slipping past the intellect and into the primal answer to Enson’s question, one that involves fully feeling and being carried away by the sounds, movements and images the play presents.
Working together like a true ensemble, showing how actors can meld by doing what each needs to do, are Enson, Mik Kuhlman, Tracy Hyland, Carina Jingrot, Kajsa Ingemansson, Elizabeth Klob, Amy Rider and Marchette DuBois.
— Eric Horsting reviews dance, theater and music for The Beachcomber.