By Shari Goldstein Stern
Echo Theatre’s “US/THEM,” now on stage at White Rock’s Bath House Cultural Center through Sept. 21, is a story about two children who become hostages during a 2004 school take-over in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia. The playwright, Carly Wijs, sets out to explore a child’s understanding of how to cope with traumatic experiences and the struggle to make sense of unthinkable acts. Wijs wrote the play after being inspired by her 8-year-old son telling her the story.
The children are celebrating the first day back to school at School Number One when a terrorist siege falls on the school, shutting it down, with students held hostage, locked inside. It is sweltering hot and they were without water or food. The play looks at how children process traumatic events.
The two-person cast of “US/THEM” includes Eric Berg as 12-year-old The Boy and Kristen Lazarchick as The Girl, also 12. Together they demonstrate what the experience of being caught in the crosshairs of an attack might be like from a child’s perspective.
The children turn the frightening event into fantasy, in which reality is just a game. It’s a magical journey through which they improvise to make sense of the horror. They translate it into play, something they enjoy. Berg and Lazarchick realistically demonstrate what starvation and dehydration look like. They show what being drained of energy is like.
These two actors are on stage the entire 45-minutes of the show. According to Berg, the story evokes the kind of emotion a child might feel at the senseless loss of children. Berg holds a BFA in theatre studies with a minor in arts management from SMU.
Also a playwright and director, the actor has appeared in Dallas and area theaters including Theatre Arlington, Jubilee Theatre, Kitchen Dog, Dallas Theater Center, Stage West, IMPRINT Theatreworks and SMU, along with other shows with Echo. He has been seen in works from Shakespeare to Neil Simon.
Two of Berg’s plays, “Alliance” and “Live Stream,” had staged readings at SMU and Theatre Too, respectively. He has assistant directed at four Dallas theaters. This is his first season as a producing partner with Echo Theatre.
Later this month Berg will appear in “A Light in Dark Places 2019,” an annual collection of short plays about suicide prevention.
Co-star Kristen Lazarchick makes her debut with Echo Theatre. She’s been seen locally at theaters including Kitchen Dog, Undermain, Cara Mia and others. She appeared in “King Lear” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Shakespeare in the Bar. She is a graduate of SMU, where she earned a BFA in theatre with a specialization in acting. Although Girl One demonstrates both play and the signs of starvation and dehydration over a period of time, Lazarchick employs a wealth of physicality.
“US/THEM” is directed by Katy Tye, who is a Dallas actor and choreographer. She said, “Carly Wijs, the brilliant playwright, noticed how void of emotional connection kids were when describing these events and she wanted to create a way to start a conversation for young adults for them to process these events.”
The playwright said: “Boy and Girl survive the ordeal in vastly different ways, but both are completely valid for a child. Boy finds comfort in fact, what he knows, and even tries to ‘solve’ the terrorist problem by converting it into a math problem. The math problem gives him a familiar situation to try to process a traumatic one and make sense of something that is too far beyond him.”
Wijs added, “Girl, on the other hand, avoids reality and disappears instead into her imagination where she can create her own perception and ideas of the situation. Nothing should be too taboo to discuss with children, it’s just about using the right words, and I couldn’t agree more.”
The playwright and director keep the play, which is discussing very scary topics — childlike, which makes it easier for an audience to digest. “The set, strings for trip wires and balloons to represent bombs, makes the piece almost feel like kids are just playing make believe, and yet it’s juxtaposed with the reality of the event,” Tye said. “The combination is a beautiful way to wet your toes in the topic of terrorism and keep it approachable for young audiences.”
Tye co-founded Prism Movement Theater and runs Shakespeare in the Bar. She has performed with Pilobolus Dance Theater, has performed aerial silks with Lone Star Circus, and has written original plays. She received a BFA in Theater Studies from SMU in 2015.
Following the 45-minute performance, Echo’s artistic director, Kateri Cale, who produced the play, leads a talk-back, giving the two actors an opportunity to field questions from the audience, adding some of their own thoughts about the play. Also answering questions is Mary Armstrong, a licensed professional counselor with production partner, Centene Corporation. One of the company’s services is training the trainers who help teachers learn to use informed practices when dealing with students’ trauma and other difficult topics.
“US/THEM,” by Echo Theatre continues at the Bath House weekends through Sept. 21. For show times and additional information, visit echotheatre.org.