07 July 2017

'My Eyes Went Dark'

At 11:35 p.m. on Monday, 1 July 2002, Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937, a Russian-built Tupolev-154 passenger jet en route from Moscow to Barcelona, Spain, collided with DHL Flight, a Boeing 757-200 cargo plane on its way from Bergamo, Italy, a stop-over on its flight from Bahrain, to Brussels.  The collision happened over  Überlingen, Germany, near Lake Constance, killing all 71 people on board; both crew members of DHL 611 perished as well.  Among the passengers were Svetlana Kaloyeva, 44, and her two children, Konstantin, 10, and Diana, 4, the family of internationally successful Russian architect Vitaly Kaloyev, 45, who were on their way to join their husband and father, in Spain working on a large construction project, for a beach vacation on the Costa Dorada.  

The airspace in which the midair crash occurred, bordering Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, was under the control of a private air-traffic  control company, Skyguide, operating out of Zürich, Switzerland.  The accident was the result of technical problems caused by on-going repairs and a delayed response from the only air-traffic  controller on duty, whose colleague was sleeping in the corridor outside the control room.  An inquiry called the cause “a mistake,” a conclusion that enraged the architect.  No one was found responsible or even apologized, let alone received punishment.  Unhinged by grief, Kaloyev, who came from the Caucasian Russian province of North Ossetia, became obsessed with getting revenge for the decimation of his entire family.  Hiring a private investigator from Moscow, the architect identified and traced the ATC whom he blamed for the loss of his family, Peter Nielsen, a Danish citizen who lived in Kloten, a suburb of Zürich. 

On Saturday, 21 February 2004, the Ossetian architect left Russia and flew to Zürich and checked into a hotel near Koten.  At a few minutes before 6 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, 24 February, just under two years after the crash, Kaloyev arrived at Nielsen’s house and, after confronting the ATC in front of his house, stabbed the man to death with a 5½-inch knife.  Nielsen’s wife was inside the home, but his three children had come outside with their father.  Nielsen was 36 years old when he was killed.

Kaloyev was arrested by Swiss police at the Kloten hotel the next evening and on 26 October 2005, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to eight years in prison.  In 2007, however, the architect was paroled and on 8 November, he was released and returned home to North Ossetia, where he was greeted as a hero.  Kaloyev was appointed regional Deputy Minister of Architecture and Construction.  Ossetia is a region with a long tradition of tolerating vendettas.

These are the bare bones of the real-life incident on which British playwright Matthew Wilkinson based his 2015 play, My Eyes Went Dark, a two-actor play that premièred that year on 25 August at the Finborough Theatre in London, co-produced with Cusack Projects Ltd., directed by the playwright with Cal MacAnnich as the architect and Thusitha Jayasundera as everybody else.  In August 2016, the play went to the Edinburgh Festival, playing at the Traverse Theatre.  The text of My Eyes Went Dark was published in 2015 by Oberon Books of London and is also available in e-book format.  The story of the crash of Bashkirian 2937 has also been told in the 2017 film Aftermath, with a character based on Vitaly Kaloyev played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

From 7 June to 2 July 2017, My Eyes ran in Theater B at the 59E59 Theaters with Jayasundera and Declan Conlon replacing MacAnnich as part of the theater’s Brits Off Broadway (23 March-3 July 2017, this year).  It was a co-production with 107group of London in association with Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and London’s Cusack Projects.  Diana, my frequent theater companion, called me in the afternoon on Saturday, 1 July, to suggest we catch the show, which had opened on 14 June, that evening; we met at the theater complex at 8:15 p.m. for the production’s penultimate 75-minute performance in the little variable-space black box on 59E59’s third floor.

I’m not familiar with Wilkinson’s work (Sun is Shining – London, 2002/Brits Off Broadway, 2004; Red Demon – adaptation from Hideki Noda, 2003; Red Sea Fish – U.K. and Brits Off Broadway, 2009), so I don’t know if this is typical, but he wrote My Eyes Went Dark as if it had been adapted from a journal or letters or interview transcripts.  (The story is recounted in myriad news accounts and there are even Wikipedia pages for Kaloyev and Bashkirian 2937.)  It’s also only lightly fictionalized—the architect has become Nikolai Koslov, his wife is now Marya (the Koslov children, who don’t appear in the play, are Anya, 4, and Yakov, 8), and Peter Nielsen is called Thomas Olsen; the building project was in Nice on France’s Côte d’Azur—so the playwright has surrendered control of the material to the various chroniclers of the actual history.  As anyone who’s had any experience with documentary theater knows (see my blog article “Performing Fact: The Documentary Drama,” 9 October 2009), hewing too closely to the historical facts, especially the chronology, can make problems in the drama department.  If the writer lets the reality drive the structure, he loses control; with fiction, he’s always in charge. 

That’s the impression My Eyes Went Dark gave me: Wilkinson tried to squeeze way too much of the history into his 75-minute drama, perhaps led by his attraction to some of the moving anecdotes and telling moments in Kaloyev/Koslov’s story—given his obsessiveness, there are a lot them—and telling too much of the story to get to his dramatic point.  For example, in an early scene Koslov gives a detailed explanation of why a private company handles the air-traffic  control of this bit of Central European territory.  It’s complicated and largely unnecessary—and it’s also hard to see why the grieving man would have to explain it to anyone anyway.  Those involved in the crash would already know this, and we don’t need to know it.  What we end up with is a string of disjointed episodes covering some five years that don’t cohere.  (There’s no dramaturg listed in the program; Wilkinson could have used one, or at least an editor.)

The most significant detriment Wilkinson’s decision has is that it prevents him from making clear what his point is—what he wants us to understand from My Eyes.  If all the playwright wants to accomplish is to stage a portrait of a man obsessed with revenge, that’s just not sufficient to sustain even an hour and a quarter of stage time.  Besides not being particularly dramatic ultimately, it quickly becomes boring.  If he had something more in mind, it never made it to the page and certainly not to the stage.  At least, I couldn’t figure it out—and neither could Diana.  I guess a lesson for a play based on material like this is: less fact, more truth.  Less reality, more imagination.

This tactic also burdened Jayasundera with so many characters to portray that she had a hard time differentiating them all—and I had a hard time distinguishing them.  I can’t even be sure if each scene introduces a new personality for her, or if any of them repeat.  (Some can be identified from the performance context, such as another bereaved parent, Koslov’s sister, a little girl who’s obviously a neighbor and playmate of Yakov’s, and Thomas Olsen.  They all have names in the published script, but few are named in the dialogue.  Jayasundera’s prodigious efforts to make them each distinct is probably the reason for the actress’s nomination for an Off West End Theatre Award in 2015.)  As for Declan Conlon as Koslov, he was constrained to give pretty much a one-dimensional characterization: a man with a single-minded purpose.  Even if Kaloyev was that man in reality, it’s not a viable stage persona.  Wilkinson, who’s also an actor himself, trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, leaves the actor nowhere to go.  I mean, Koslov had moods, but they’re all variations on his single-mindedness—his love, his anger, his frustration, even his victoriousness.  There’s no development.  Conlon (who bears an occasional resemblance to Jonathan Pryce) does a creditable job depicting this, but it’s an exercise in acting technique.   My Eyes Went Dark  ends up a one-note play with nowhere for Conlon to go as Koslov wallows in his grief and obsesses about revenge.   It became enervating and boring despite (or maybe because of) Conlon’s high-pitched performance. 

I found My Eyes un- and even anti-dramatic and even un-theatrical, despite obvious attempts by the designers to infuse it with theatrical FX, particularly Elliot Griggs’s lighting, which included illuminated mist and a square patch of light on the floor that represented the granite grave marker that Kaloyev compulsively tends and cleans, and Max Pappenheim’s sound, including the harrowing (and loud) roar of the collision.  The minimalist set designed by Bethany Wells (who also did the costumes) was a strip across the small playing area—the audience sits on two sides—that forms a kind of narrow runway demarked by a shiny, black, mylar-like runner (on which entering spectators were admonished not to walk, toward which end a mat was temporarily laid across the strip like Raleigh’s cloak) with a molded plastic chair at each end.  A panel of six Fresnel lights is mounted behind each chair.  There were no props at all; everything that Conlon handled was mimed.  All of this was something of a technical accomplishment—the 59E59 staffer who greeted Diana touted the lighting—but I have no idea what any of it represented, especially the mylar strip of which the theater was so protective.

As of 2 July, Show-Score had collected 22 published reviews, of which 12 were of the New York production.  The average score of those local notices was 70, with 50% of the New York reviews positive, 42% mixed, and 8% negative.  Show‑Score’s highest rating was a single 90 (Theater Pizzazz), backed by one 85 (Broadway World), and a low score of a single 40 (New York Times), the only negative notice.  My round-up will cover six reviews.

After summarizing the account of the air crash, Maya Phillips asserted in the New York Times that Kaloyev’s tale is “a story worthy of the most memorable of characters, from Medea to Inigo Montoya,” but that in My Eyes Went Dark “Matthew Wilkinson . . . creates a drama that ultimately feels more like a true-crime movie of the week.”  Phillips complained, “Too often . . . the script jumps face first into scenes, then flounders as the exposition-laden dialogue tries to pick up the slack” even though “[t]he staging, from the crystal-clear sound design to the dynamic flash-and-fade lighting, effectively guides the play through hopscotching shifts in setting and time.”  Of the cast, the Times reviewer wrote, “Ms. Jayasundera moves deftly from role to role, though she’s ill served by some of the less developed ones.  Mr. Conlon’s Koslov is an unfinished sketch, barely shaded beyond his revenge.”  Of Koslov, Phillips felt that “hints of more complex disillusionment and guilt” seemed “sudden and not wholly explored, and the peak emotional moments verge on the melodramatic.”  She concluded, “In claustrophobically bringing us close to a character defined purely by his grief, ‘My Eyes Went Dark’ at once presents us with too little and broadcasts too much . . . .  Such missteps are dramatically felt in such a trim production.”

In Time Out New York, Helen Shaw characterized My Eyes as “a fragmented and disturbing” rendering of the “barely fictionalized account of” Kaloyev’s story.  She found the play “upsetting for its content” and added that she felt “Wilkinson’s use of these events is troubling, particularly since he ends his drama on a sudden note of sentimental uplift for the killer, with a soaring soundtrack and heavenly overhead light.”  Shaw complimented “the superb, chameleonic Thusitha Jayasundera” and reported that she and Conlon “stalk each other up and down a tiny alleyway between two banks of seats, so we’re painfully close to their screaming and anguish.”  The playwright, affirmed the TONY reviewer, has a “precise ear for dialogue [that] makes his succession of brief scenes convincing, and My Eyes Went Dark has power as a high-intensity acting showcase.” She complained, though, that “there’s too little analysis of the mechanisms of revenge and forgiveness.  Instead,” Shaw objected, “the play offers intense, histrionic moments that we thrill to as voyeurs, not as thinkers.”  She concluded, “Actual grief and actual murder are repurposed for our dark entertainment, and there’s something ugly in that.”

Talkin’ Broadway’s Howard Miller, calling Wilkinson’s play “wrenching,” labeled My Eyes Went Dark a “story of trauma and revenge” with Koslov, played by Conlon “with a laser-like intensity” and Jayasundera bringing all the other characters “fully to life by instantaneously changing her demeanor, accent, and vocal expression.”  Miller reported, “These two finely wrought performances are honed to a sharp edge by” playwright-director Wilkinson.  The TB review-writer concluded that My Eyes “makes for a most unsettling evening that raises at least as many questions as it addresses.”  On Broadway World, Marina Kennedy characterized the play as “emotional, thought-provoking drama” and “a very timely piece of theater that examines a tragedy from a rarely seen perspective.”  She declared Conlon (“an evocative, heartrending performance”) and Jayasundera (“swiftly and precisely assumes her roles”) “extraordinary acting talents.”  Kennedy’s final analysis was that My Eyes Went Dark “is an intriguing play that will surely captivate metro area audiences.”

After reminding us that Spaniard Lope de Vega, Shakespeare’s contemporary, “said all you need for theatre is ‘three boards [or four: sources vary], two actors, and a passion,’” Samuel L. Leiter asserted on his blog, Theatre’s Leiter Side, “That seems the guiding aesthetic behind My Eyes Went Dark.”  Leiter admitted that though the play, “as dark as its title, was very warmly received when performed” in London, “for all its potential, it left me cold.”  My Eyes Went Dark unfolds “in an episodic, sometimes elliptical, at other times straightforward manner,” affirms Leiter, complaining, “Sincere as all this is, and significant as are its concerns with vengeance, forgiveness, guilt, and responsibility, the cool, quiet, low-keyed, soporifically paced production sometimes almost made my own eyes go dark.”  The TLS blogger praised Jayasundera for her versatility, but complained that “it would help if Wilkinson’s approach weren’t quite so austere and he offered some small clues . . . to each of her roles instead of making it a guessing game.”  Conlon, Leiter found, however, “is less interesting; an obviously polished actor, he nonetheless seems too dryly removed for a man so consumed by sadness and anger.”  Like me, this reviewer felt, “When [Conlon’s] emotions burst out they seem more like theatrical displays than organic expressions.”  The production, Leiter reported, depended on Pappenheim’s “exceptionally expressive sound design” and Griggs’s “nice moody lighting effects.”

On Theater Pizzazz, Carole Di Tosti dubbed My Eyes a “taut drama” that Wilkinson has written and directed “with thoughtful precision.”  The TP review-writer reported, “The production is a performance tour de force,” but warned, “You will have to fasten your seat belts to follow the opaque, tense, and emotional journey.”  Di Tosti deemed “Koslov’s journey . . . frighteningly real,” finding that “the playwright drives the themes unbearably close to home,” creating “an intriguing mental exercise.”  She declared “the play’s power and dynamism are trenchant,” resulting in “an exceptional achievement in a production that is stylized and expressionistic.”

After we left the theater, talking about what we’d witnessed, Diana reread some of the review quotations on the promotional post card 59E59 had sent out.  This is what had intrigued her enough to call me that afternoon.  Some of the notices cited were from the London or Edinburgh performances, and Diana wondered how they could record the reactions quoted when we both had found the production of My Eyes Went Dark so disappointing.  I suggested that we didn’t actually know what the passages excerpted had meant in context in the reviews from which they were drawn.  (When I quote from reviews in these play reports, I try very diligently not to misquote any writer or to take passages out of their intended context.)  When I got home, I decided to look up some of the published notices on line and see how they were quoted for the promotion.  One quotation, identified as Time Out, read: “a great, harsh modern tragedy.”  I quickly found that it wasn’t from Time Out New York (whose review I quoted myself above), so I looked for the U.K. editions of the magazine. 

I found two publications with reviews of My Eyes: Time Out London and Time Out Edinburgh.  Neither has a line like the one in the promotion.  The London edition had a headline that reads: “A great new tragedy from writer Matthew Wilkinson” (the underlining is mine) and the Edinburgh review contains the lines: “it’s practically Greek on the tragedy scale,” “‘My Eyes Went Dark’ is a tragedy that looks at human beings’ inherent need to exact revenge,” and “[Thusitha Jayasundera] is excellent, providing both humanity and a harsh calculated bureaucracy.”  That’s the closest I could come to words approximating the blurb.  I’m not prepared to call the advertising dishonest, but it certainly gives a wrong impression.

The quotation attributed to the Guardian, “brilliantly acted, meaty, tense drama . . . an extremely powerful play about justice, revenge and forgiveness,” was slightly more accurate: I found the second half (after the ellipsis) in the on-line edition of the review, but not the first part.  Now, maybe the on-line versions of these publications vary from the print editions, and maybe someone just made . . . well, “mistakes” (as ironic as that word is here), but that doesn’t prevent the promotional campaign from being misleading.  (New York has a law to prohibit blatantly quoting reviews out of context.  During the 1984-85 Broadway season, Lawrence Roman’s Alone Together was fined by the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs because of just such misuse of quotations in its advertising.)

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