“The Modern International Dead” is tough stuff. Damien Millar’s second play about peacekeepers and aid workers travels to the sites of war and refugee camps, places that have witnessed some of the world’s worst recent violence. However, Chris Mead’s authoritative direction and a fine cast bring welcome flashes of humor to this otherwise dense piece of verbatim theater.
Millar has created a complex and often dizzying play from hundreds of hours of interviews with Australians on the frontline in some of the most devastating humanitarian crises of recent years. His research is distilled into three main characters: Rod (Colin Moody), a biochemist who becomes an intelligence officer and weapons inspector; Bridgette (Belinda McClory), a novitiate sister-turned-grief counselor; and Luke (Ian Meadows), a peacekeeper, aid worker and de-miner.
Their stories run parallel in a frenetic, jump-cut style with the three thesps occupying a further 60 bit parts. Bridgette and Luke’s stories intersect when she counsels him for post-traumatic stress syndrome, while Rod’s story arcs across the big picture as his scientific career evolves from microbiology to becoming an inspector with UNSCON during the pre-Iraq War weapons of mass destruction era.
The protagonists find themselves variously in Somalia, East Timor, Cambodia and Iraq, with the drama culminating in Kibeho, a Rwandan refugee camp that erupted into violence in April 1995. The graphically recalled incident resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people when soldiers of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Army opened fire on 110,000 displaced Hutus forced into a fenced-off area in the camp.
Millar’s preoccupation with the intellectual and the rational robs his characters of emotional journeys which might have made the play resonate more strongly with audiences. However, that may have been an insurmountable challenge with such tightly packed material in a play already running three hours. Rarely off the stage, thesps transition between roles with just a few props, minimal costumes and the occasional nun’s habit.
“The Modern International Dead” works as a fantastic actor showcase: Moody especially shifts gears with aplomb and works his smaller roles as a nun and the Virgin Mary with comic elasticity.
This play re-unites the playwright with director Mead, who also helmed Millar’s “Emergency Sex,” staged by Sydney Theater Company’s developmental strand and winner of the Griffin Award for outstanding new play in 2007.