Serbian playwright Biljana Srbljanovic’s unflinching, skillful “Family Stories” uses a violently dysfunctional family as envisioned by children as a metaphor for the larger disorder of a region torn apart by civil war and the crimes of Slobodan Milosevic. Exposing the brutal impact of war on kids, Srbljanovic opts for a tough, rough approach, going to devastatingly absurdist lengths to excoriate the inhuman waste of war. Produced in many languages throughout Europe, “Family Stories” is a specialized piece of theater, but it deserves a berth at a brave Off Broadway house.
The play has a gutsy, foul-mouthed honesty in Rebecca Ann Rugg’s English translation. Four young-adult actors portray Serbian children, ages 10, 11 and 12. Three of them play house, as the father, mother and son (and at times daughter) of a singularly unfortunate family. The fourth, a mute interloper in rags, is adopted as the family dog. We eventually learn that she’s a war orphan consumed with guilt at the death of her parents.
A series of short scenes make up the play, each presenting a self- contained story, almost all ending with the parents dying at the hands of their son. One ends with him pouring gasoline over them as they sleep and burning them to death. In another, the father chokes to death.
Director Annie Dorsen and her cast have worked closely to achieve the forceful atmosphere of this production. The cast acts with tremendous gusto, to the point of taking physical risks. Performances are deliberately raucous, the impact deeply unsettling. The play ends with the orphaned girl/dog finally speaking, yearning for happiness, freedom and peace. A blinding explosion is the finale.
The world represented is ugly, physically and morally. Women are subservient and abused by their husbands; parents are expected to beat their children. Danger is everywhere, no one can be trusted, and hope is nonexistent.
As the brother and sister who play the parents, Brandon Miller and Danielle Skraastad are heroic as a darkly comic team, while Corey Behnke as their son/daughter is equally edgy (the playwright is well aware of the need for comic relief amid her play’s horrors). As the orphan “with tics,” who plays a drooling dog most of the time but also gets to copulate with the son, Emma Bowers is remarkable, rising to the demands of her final monologue fervently.
The play takes place in the suburban housing projects of Belgrade, and set designer Jeff Cowie has provided a superb set. On a cracked concrete slab he’s erected a playhouse made out of scavenged bits and pieces of rubble and garbage. It looks as if it’s been built by the children themselves.