Memory and loss. Light and shadow. Bones and stars. Belgrade-based DAH (meaning “breath”) Teatar’s masterful duet piece “The Quivering of the Rose” is a meditation on the fragility — and the strange resilience — of memory and the human will when faced with disappearance and loss. The unadorned minimalist space of the black box Devine Studio Theater only intensifies the emotionality of the performance.
Running at just under an hour, the March 30th performance of “The Quivering of the Rose” was excerpted from a larger ensemble work called “The Presence of Absence,” which focuses on articulating the contradictory presence of absence felt by the families and loved ones of the missing. From those lost to political or ethnic conflict, war and crime, or to the unknown and the undefined, the performance centers on the rituals of mourning and grief as the families seek a closure that cannot be given to them. This performance marks a continuation in theme of the works staged by DAH Teatar, whose experimental professional troupe has been praised by the New York Times for the “poignant intensity” of its work opposing war and violence.
Although only two people (Dijana Milosevic and Maja Mitic, playing the Director and the Centuries-Old Woman Who Saw It All, respectively) inhabit the stage, the presence of all those absent loom over the performance. Be it in the utterance of the names of real people lost to conflict or in the simulacrums of human figures on artfully placed sacks along the hallway leading into the theatre and on select seats, the loss felt by the loved ones of the missing is made at once both profoundly personal and infinitely universal.
Entering the theatre, you cannot help but feel as if you are entering a sort of limbo, suspended in time and space within the intimate area of the theatre. Indeed, when the performance itself begins, the feeling of limbo is only deepened by the interplay of the light shining down on the two performers, the dreamy ruminations uttered by the characters and the ambient soundscape of the background music.
Despite having no discernible overarching plot or any of the traditional trappings of a theater performance, every movement, every sound and every visual presented to the audience speaks of deliberateness within the free-form structure of the performance. Particularly worth mentioning is Mitic’s performance as the Centuries-Old Woman, whose metamorphosis in grief we witness over the course of the play. In contrast, Milosevic plays a more subdued supporting role as the Director, who frames the beginning and ending of the performance, occasionally chiming in during the pauses of Mitic’s performance.
On that note, there is a startling duality running through the performance. Despite inhabiting the same performance space, the two actresses never interact directly, yet their performances complement each other. Most notably, Mitic speaks only in Serbian throughout all her speeches, with Milosevic bringing up the English translations on a screen at the same time. Surprisingly, the subsequent disconnect between what you hear and what you see on the screen does not add to a sense of detachment. Instead, you are arguably better poised to hear the emotion and anguish simmering beneath the surface of Mitic’s lilting voice and the mournful cadences of her monologues.
“The Quivering of the Rose” also features innovative uses of props. After the initial minimalist impression from the space the piece is performed in, Mitic quickly subverts the audience’s expectations. The versatility of her props and her outfit enhance the transformation she undergoes throughout the play; when she first enters, she carries two sacks and is dressed in a mishmash ensemble of clothes. After emptying the contents of the sacks to reveal a collection of ordinary button-down shirts, Mitic begins to speak, deliberately yet in a sing-song tone, of how she once knew a girl with a doll that was later lost.
While she tells the strange little story, she quickly creates a doll out of the shirts and lovingly cradles it, bringing to mind a mother and child. Yet later on the doll stands in for the victims of human trafficking for organs; donning a surgical masks and gloves, Mitic ruthlessly plunges her hand into its “chest cavity” and extracts a scarf. The impression of stage conjuring from Mitic’s deft hands as she pulls out scarf after scarf proves that you do not need lavish props to create powerful effects.
Another stage piece that made an impression was the “tree” of dead branches tied with white scraps of cloth that Mitic’s character creates towards the end of the play while chanting the names of the lost. Speaking in a dialogue session right after the performance ended, Mitic mentions how the imagery of the tree came to her in a dream, while Milosevic conceptualised of the idea of the white ribbons after a visit to an Italian monastery and seeing Korean mourning practices, resulting in the final stage piece. The synergy between the two actresses extended beyond their collaboration on stage to their initial conceptualization of the performance, and it was fascinating to hear them discuss the journey from idea to reality in the post-performance dialogue.
In a performance focused as it is on loss and grief, “The Quivering of the Rose” is also ultimately hopeful. One particularly striking part of the performance was when Mitic breaks a loaf of bread and hands out the pieces to members of the audience while speaking of “my/your/our fathers/mothers/brothers/sisters” and so on, perhaps in a reminder that loss and grief are as personal as they are universal. After all, as Milosevic’s character reminds us at the end of the play, the stuff our bones are made of is the same as what makes the stars. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust; where we come from we must also return to in the end.