What’s our debt to other people? How do we measure it, and how do we pay it? Rule of Thumb, a new play by Serbian playwright Iva Brdar, tackles the questions we all secretly ask — and too often, avoid answering.
The world premiere of this fabulous play was staged on Feb. 22 at The Cherry Artspace in Ithaca. Director Prof. Beth Milles, performing and media arts, and assistant director Bryan Hagelin ‘20 both hail from Cornel University.
A vivacious tale written in vivid verse, Rule of Thumb follows the travels of two young women, Ana and Monica, who embark on a hitchhiking contest across Eastern Europe. Structurally with this play, Brdar paints a surrealist twist on the road movie tradition, with the 1991 film Thelma and Louise being her most explicit influence. Though grown from stories with Eastern European roots (the play is loosely based on Brdar’s memories of Serbia and her encounters with hitchhikers in Europe), Rule of Thumb elaborates on universal themes of trust, indebtedness and social justice that strike a chord with any audience.
A play about a road trip poses a clear challenge: showing vehicles in motion on a static stage. To have life-sized vehicles in a small space like The Cherry would look obtuse and cumbersome. Thankfully, this production opts for a minimalist interpretation: three wooden chairs implying the car’s interior.
This choice of set permits the actors to move outside the physical “limits” of a vehicle, which comes in handy while they negotiate with their drivers — every one of whom asks a favor of the women. At first contained and reticent, the breadth of the actors’ movements intensify as deliberations reach a breaking point. Thus, the flexibility of the set allows depictions of both mental claustrophobia and expansive passion.
The episodic and surrealist depiction of Ana and Monica’s encounters with their drivers further dislodges their journey from the physical to the metaphysical. The script, written in verse, evokes the rise and fall of a parable or fable in each passage; in fact, the flow of the play is almost biblical. The breathtaking light displays and ethereal soundtrack also give it an ancient feeling.
Overall, the effect is to universalize the women’s conflicts — be it arguments over the quality of pans or the casualness of a green card marriage — in order to comment on the broader themes of one’s value and indebtedness to others.
Note that “universal” and “ancient” do not mean trite or irrelevant. In fact, though the narration read during scene transitions aligns with the parabolic inclination towards moral instruction, the humor and irony of the script subverts trajectories towards moral ultimatum.
While on the road, it seems the women are the ones being taken advantage of. At the end, however, we see them, Monica in particular, relax into a self-interested stasis. Having finally reached their destination, the meadow at Strezimirovci, this idyllic setting operates as a haven. Swathed in bucolic lights and sound, the women are sheltered from the demands and trials of the outside world. Yet, with their presumed victory comes complacency and self-righteousness. The production asks: are the women entitled to this quiescence?
In an ominous finale, flocks of people disrupt the women’s peaceful camp. These people, cloaked and road-weary, pace the runway bordering the stage — not quite part of the women’s world, but flanking it. Three times they make this march, driven by unseen forces that lock them in this apocalyptic carousel on the periphery of society. Monica watches, transfixed, while Ana futilely tries to get their attention.
The women follow the train of migrants offstage.
In the final moments of the play, bird song plays over softly lit scenery. The meadow is abandoned just as the women left it, in a moment that reminds us of the natural world’s indifference to human affairs. Though this play may be magical and mystical, it offers no promises that some greater power or natural force will right our wrongs or pay our debts. When it comes to deciding the fate of those road-weary people, it’s up to us to make the difference.
When faced with fights for social justice, how can we balance our duty to power forward and push through with our need to retreat and recharge? Ana and Monica followed the migrants off stage – but to where?
Where would you go, and what would you do?
Editor’s Note: There will be a special presentation of the play at the 53rd Street New York City Public Library on Wednesday, March 7.
Lisa McCullough is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.