Hannah Arendt famously subtitled her book on Adolf Eichmann “A Report on the Banality of Evil”; Winter Miller’s play No One Is Forgotten (which she also directs) could perhaps be subtitled “An Exploration of the Absurdity (or the Monotony) of Terror.” Trapped together in a concrete cell in a nameless place for never-explained reasons, two women (their names are Beng and Lali, though we don’t learn this for some time) can do nothing but endure, and try to find ways to remain intact.
All markers of time, place, individuality have been taken from them–they wear identical shifts, are given a featureless porridge to eat at unpredictable intervals, and live in a cell empty of all furnishings but a bucket. It seems distinctly possible that they’re not even sure where they are; at one point, when their food and water delivery has been delayed longer than usual, Beng (Renata Friedman) shouts through the transom asking for water in seven different languages, covering many of the world’s scariest and most authoritarian places. And Lali (Sarah Nina Hayon) mentions a few conflict-ridden places she’s been to on work assignments, but nothing specific in her immediate past that would explain the imprisonment.
At first, they seem almost abstracted figures, something like Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon: their present activity is the subject, not who they might have been before or how they got here. They play hangman (without paper or pen, just a running memory of how many body parts are on the scaffold) and an existentialist version of “I Spy” where emotions and moods are possible answers. They make imaginary shopping lists of the utterly random things they’d just walk into a store and buy: Pampers; Wite-Out; taco shells. They debate endless theoretical “Would you rather” questions: AIDS or Ebola? Colorectal cancer or leukemia? They wait in silence. They exercise and limber each other’s muscles. They have sex sometimes.
But while they pose all kinds of “given circumstances” questions, rarely do they discuss–complain about, strategize the possibility of escape from, bargain with the universe over–the given circumstances in which they find themselves: No speculation about who their captors are. No acknowledgments of how filthy, how cold or hot, how constantly uncomfortable they must be. They note new aches, pains, injuries, but not the constant baseline physical unpleasantness with which they must be living. (Meredith Ries’s set and Rhys Roffey’s costumes sketch out a world of dirt and rubble, but can’t truly convey the grime that sets in after an extended period of time in a contained, never-cleaned space, wearing the same clothes without access to water or sanitary supplies–let alone the smell.) Their hopes, to the extent they retain any, are of escape by death (each makes a plan for her own wake during the play) more often than actual escape.
But the main triumph is that it’s not grim, mostly (though admittedly, when the lights come back to start a scene and one of the women is gone, a sudden stab of terror ran through me). It’s wry and human and maybe even a little boring, given the circumstances. (At barely ninety minutes, it still dragged a bit toward the end.) Friedman and Hayon let their characters retain warmth and affection for each other–irritation too, of course; how could they not make each other crazy by now?–and the ability to find some pleasure in the things they do to cut the monotony. It feels a little artificial that they barely speak of their actual lives for most of the play, but I think the logic is that they’ve mostly sucked their own histories dry; the wakes provide a new spur for memory, a new reason to go through the trauma of revisiting their lives. It’s a little bit of a gimmick, but it adds richness to the character portraits.
The decision to stage in the round (in a space that had to be thoroughly contorted into that staging) has pros and cons. The tininess of the playing area adds a visceral claustrophobia to the setting, and the in-the-round seating amps the intimacy and allows for a stillness that lets Tyler Kieffer’s intricate and subtle sound design, with its tantalizing clues to the external environment, all be heard. But the staging can also feel awkward, sometimes hiding key bits of information or business from part of the audience (and in a play where every tiny thing could be a clue, this matters).
Miller’s directing is precise and understated, perhaps sometimes too much so. It shines in the small, intimate moments between Beng and Lali, but sometimes it feels like the women are too often in conscious control of their emotions and mental states.
Sometimes the ambiguity of No One Is Forgotten can make it a little too anodyne; sometimes it adds universality and power. (Interestingly, the script indicates that the characters could be men, women, or one of each; this version uses two women.) There’s an obvious parallel to Frank McGuinness’s Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, but Miller’s interests feel like the inverse of McGuinness’s. If McGuinness is looking at where his characters came from; Miller writes about what’s left when the markers of one’s identity are stripped away: despair, but also a core of humanity that can’t help but hope.