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Sacred ruins

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  • | 5:00 a.m. February 3, 2010
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An air-conditioned rehearsal room at Florida Studio couldn’t be any further from a Congolese brothel, yet the cast of playwright Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined” carries you there. With thoughtful gestures and commanding dialogue, the play, which earned Nottage a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2009, is so engrossing even audiences watching early run-throughs couldn’t look away.

During a behind-the-scenes tour last month, students in FST’s theater appreciation program watched 20 minutes of the show while Artistic Director Richard Hopkins ran cast members through the first scene.

With limited props, no set and no costumes, “Ruined” was still startlingly visceral. Just 20 minutes in, the audience was begging for more. Led by actress Alice Gatling as Mama Nadi, the proprietress of a bar and brothel in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “Ruined” is as much a poignant survival story as it is a biting comedy.

“This is the most complex piece of theater I’ve worked on in a decade or two,” says Hopkins, who flew up to New York City last year to cast the show shortly after it wrapped at the Manhattan Theatre Club. “The people are complex. The issues are complex. The emotions are complex.”

FST is the first regional theater company in the Southeast to premiere the show, which was so popular during its New York City run that the Manhattan Theatre Club extended it nine times.

“I initially stayed away from it, thinking it would be too dark and heavy,” Hopkins says. “But when I saw the play, I was blown away by how life-affirming and pleasurable it was. It’s a word-of-mouth kind of show.”

Here’s why: Mama Nadi’s brothel is set against the backdrop of a civil war; armed soldiers pass in and out of the brothel, hungry for beer and women. The play begins with Mama, a fortress of a woman, loosely inspired by Nottage’s own interviews with women of the Congo and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage.”

Armed with chocolates, makeup and other commodities, a salesman nicknamed “The Professor” for his bookish glasses and dapper suits (played by Broadway actor Stanley Wayne Mathis) enters Mama’s canteen and offers up the goods, in addition to two new girls. Tempted by the chocolates and delighted to have a new tube of red lipstick, Mama reluctantly agrees to take on both women. The frailer of the two is 18-year-old Sophie, who was raped with a bayonet and has little to offer Mama, except for book smarts and a pretty singing voice — skills that serve her well in the brothel, despite her being “ruined.”

Knowing only this, the plot seems awfully grim, until you hear the rest of Nottage’s script, a mix of weighty subplot, cutting witticisms and playful innuendo.

“It has tremendous breadth,” Hopkins says. “So many points of view are delivered on stage and it’s done with such humanity. We see the Congo from the point of view of the farmer, the rebel soldier, the government commander, the diamond merchant, the educated, the uneducated, the earthbound and the spirit-bound. It’s an amazing world this playwright has put together.”

The cast is huge by FST standards — 11 actors and two musicians, many of whom play more than one character, making “Ruined” the company’s biggest-budget production of the season.

“Every actor in New York City came out for this audition,” Hopkins says. “We chose from some of the best actors in the country.”

The drama, which opened Feb. 3 in FST’s Keating Theatre, couldn’t be more different than “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a Tony Award-winning musical about goofy middle-school students competing to win first place in a spelling competition. Yet, if you ask Hopkins if Sarasota audiences will have difficulty stomaching “Ruined,” he’ll say that the show is no less watchable than “Spelling Bee,” which closed last Friday on the same stage.

He mentions that the show includes contemporary Congolese music that, like the play itself, is contrary to what audiences might expect.

“I thought this play deserved a Pulitzer Prize,” Hopkins says. “And I think Sarasota deserves to see it.”

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]

“Ruined” runs now through April 3, at Florida Studio Theatre. For more information, visit or call 366-9000. For more on Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, visit



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