The German embassy made a peculiar choice of their country’s playwrights when they picked Wolfgang Maria Bauer to be the one whose script they would sponsor when it was staged at the Phoenix Players from January 30 through tonight—February 9.
Bauer’s play, In the Eyes of a Stranger, offered a serious challenge for the ensemble cast of Kenyans that director George Mungai assembled to produce the show. The challenge, especially acting out the extreme angst and alienation of most of the characters in the play, was tackled with surprising sensitivity and depth of feeling.
Starting with Sebastian (Charles Ouda), whose suicidal tendency were apparent from the moment the show began, to Daniel’s (Martin Kigondu), trying to tell his life’s frustration to a beautiful but inattentive prostitute Gratia (Valentine Ziki), practically every character had a problem connecting and communicating with fellow human beings.
The story line revolves around Pinon (David Opondoe), a hermit who’d run away from society some 18 years before. He is in effect the embodiment of alienation since he made the choice to turn his back on the public after winning his ocean-side house in a card game. And while he went there with a wife, rumor around the nearest village is that he murdered her and sliced her body up in the little pieces! Pretty grim stuff!
Pinon’s only contact with people is when he meets them at the edge of his land where the cliffs meet the water. According to Pinon, most of those who come to the cliffs are suicidal. Pinon usually stops by, supposedly “to help them out”, he tells Sebastian.
He shamelessly admits this ‘help’ may include ‘facilitating’ their fall, even when they haven’t quite made up their minds for suicide! But suicide, murder, and alienation are not the only topics that run through In the Eyes of a Stranger.
The key issue raised by the title itself is who is ‘a stranger’ in the play? Could it be that everyone is essentially estranged from others and even from themselves?
That terrible sense of alienation is quite foreign to most Kenyans who tend to be gregarious, social, and connected to a multitude of family and friends; which is one reason why I congratulate the cast for their acting like mad men and women.
For instance, it took real talent for Amelia Aganda (Vera) to do a crazy extended monologue. On stage alone, her one-sided conversation with some invisible person again showed a social disconnect between herself and others.
Apparently a runaway from the ultimate union of marriage (symbolized by the veil still hanging from her head), Vera cried out for some sign of human contact.
She wasn’t the only one crying out for a human response, even a soul-filled response to the story they had to share. Daniel was so hungry for human connection that he was willing to pay a prostitute to listen to him. Yet Gratia couldn’t even listen as he poured his guts out to her. He hadn’t been interested in having sex, but apparently that was the only thing she had to give.
Daniel’s frustration finally led to his coming to the cliffs where he lastly encountered the hermit who was just as disinterested in human contact with the young guy (who suddenly reveals his gay inclinations) as Gratia had before him.
I won’t be a spoiler and disclose how the story ends, but I will say it reveals one extreme plight of Western society, which is the unintended consequences of individualism. The ‘every man for himself’ mentality can literally drive someone mad, especially when it implies that everyone is seeing through “the eyes of a stranger.’
The one quirky expression of human kindness comes from the hotel Receptionist (Jack Gitonga) who, after refusing to find sleeping space for Vera in his hotel, gives her a set of baggy clothes that she can wear to meet the hermit, who has a huge house where she might spend the night.
Otherwise, seeing through the eyes of a stranger can be a fairly lonely affair and one that can lead to a soulless self-estrangement and a living hell. It’s a sad story, but one that could be seen as a cautionary tale which can warn Kenyans not to be so quick to imbibe all the Western values and lifestyles since since some of them can lead you nowhere.
Also this weekend you can see Repair my Heart, a new play by Walter Sitati with Hearts of Art at Kenya National Theatre and a new play by Wholesome Entertainment at Alliance Francaise.