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ArtsEmerson play a compelling story of colonialism

Susan Saccoccia | 1/22/2014, 11:02 a.m.

Actor 3/Another White Man, Joseph Kidawski, boasts that he can become the beloved grandmother of Actor 6/Black Woman. Despite his linebacker build, he then melts into the role and she as well as the audience are momentarily spellbound. Their delicate duet demonstrates the transporting, rabbit-out-of-a-hat wonder of acting.

But as the ensemble grapples with their elusive material, the play’s humor dissolves into tension and frustration. “Let’s do this!,” Black Woman commands her fellow actors.

Impressive and never shrill as the ensemble’s dissenting voices were Brandon Green as Actor 2/Black Man and Marc Pierre, Actor 4/Another Black Man. As the group starts reading from the German soldier’s letters and acting out scenes, Green’s character objects, “Where are all the Africans?’’

The actors play roles within roles. As Jesse James Wood — Actor 1/White Man — portrays the soldier, his face shows him slowly waking up to the horror he is bringing to life.

Only one character has a name, Actor 5/Sarah, performed by Lorne Batman. A shadowy figure, Sarah is the wife back home who receives the soldier’s letters.

Blurring the boundaries between group improvisation and an encounter group, this segment of the play went on too long, adding a half-hour to a production billed as 90 minutes with no intermission. Worse, its overindulgence weakened the play’s impact.

After the final scene, the actors survey the audience with searching eyes. They seem to be seeking empathy—a response not earned by the play’s heavy-handed finale.