Brandeis production of 'Martyr' examines religious tolerance

Assistant Professor Dmitry Troyanovsky '98Photo/Mike Lovett

Assistant Professor Dmitry Troyanovsky '98

Note: This article originally appeared in the fall issue of State of the Arts magazine.

When Assistant Professor Dmitry Troyanovsky '98 chose his first production for the Brandeis Department of Theater Arts, he did not hesitate to fix his gaze beyond the borders of the United States.

“We can be limited, even provincial, in the theater that we offer in the U.S. It’s very rare for us to examine what’s happening with non-English-speaking playwrights, yet much of their work is fresh, fascinating and profound,” Troyanovsky said. “I often feel it is my mission to bring these plays to our audience in America.”

It didn’t take long for Troyanovsky, who joined the theater arts faculty last year, to zero in on Marius von Mayenburg, a Berlin-based playwright with 16 scripts to his credit that date back to the mid-1990s. Von Mayenburg has received critical acclaim in Europe but is still something of a secret in the U.S. Troyanovsky first encountered von Mayenburg’s work more than a decade ago, at a staged reading of “The Cold Child” in New York, and has since become closely familiar with his style.

“The playwright often confronts us with things in our world that are disturbing, controversial  and sometimes ugly. While von Mayenburg’s texts are not abstract, the plays are far from comfortable TV-style naturalism,” he said. “These plays activate the audience. They demand our intellectual and imaginative participation.”

This fall, Troyanovsky directs von Mayenburg’s “Martyr,” the story of Benjamin, a teenage boy who discovers the Bible on his own and becomes increasingly fundamental in his Christian ideology. The play chronicles his outspoken beliefs and the way the people in his life — his classmates, friends, teachers and family — respond to them and interact with him. Sometimes these responses, even ones that begin with tolerant intentions, lead to dark, shocking places.

When the play was presented at the Unicorn Theatre in London last year, the Guardian newspaper described it as “a primed hand grenade” that “equates the madness and passions of puberty with the madness and passions of zealotry.”

“Martyr” addresses an issue that Western societies are grappling with right now: the conflict between secularism and fundamentalism, and the radicalization of young people, Troyanovsky says.

“The play does it in a very theatrical and provocative way,” he said. “It doesn’t take sides and doesn’t offer simplistic solutions. It just raises important questions.”

Brandeis’ production of “Martyr” will be the second in the U.S. and the first on the East Coast. (It was performed at the Steep Theatre in Chicago last year.) It features a cast of Brandeis undergraduates, along with Adrianne Krstansky, Barbara Sherman ’54 and Malcolm L. Sherman Director of Theater Arts, who will play Benjamin’s mother; and lecturer Alex Jacobs, MFA ’13. Assistant Professor Cameron Anderson, who says she expects the play to strike a chord on campus, will design the set.

“I think it’s going to spark a lot of conversation,” Anderson said. “I think it’s going to be interesting to our community. It asks a lot of questions Brandeis students are interested in.”

The script for “Martyr” includes nearly 30 short scenes, posing a challenge for set design, according to Anderson. She will have to create a space that’s open and flexible but still full of meaning, which has led her to focus on the interiors of high schools, including rows of lockers, long hallways and neatly lined up empty desks.

“The vacuous spaces of schools have these repetitive qualities, an institutional kind of feeling. When empty, they are kind of sad,” Anderson said. “There’s a sense of menace.”

Last spring, Troyanovsky introduced segments of the play to students in his acting class.

“The students really connected with it,” he said. “Our campuses today are very tolerant places, but there may be a feeling, and I think students are loath to express it, that having differences, maybe a more conservative outlook, can make them feel like outsiders.”

For the students in the cast, working with Brandeis faculty means getting experienced with seasoned theater professionals. Troyanovsky has directed performances around the world, Anderson is an active set designer in theater across the U.S., and Krstansky is one of the most acclaimed performers on the Boston theater scene.

"This is a model that we're really excited about incorporating more often into the theater department," Krstansky said, "to create a company that brings faculty, students and professionals together."

“Martyr” will be performed from November 17 to 20 at the Laurie Theater in the Spingold Theater Center on the Brandeis campus. Tickets are available online, at the Shapiro Campus Center box office, or by phone at (781) 736-3400

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