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THEATER: Katrina: State of Emergency
by Rick Reed

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Playwright: Jeffrey Bruner

At: Bailiwick Arts Center

Phone: ( 773 ) 883-1090; $25

Runs through: Feb. 19

It's hard to revisit a national wound that is still fresh in our minds and hearts. It's difficult to see an almost instant replay of what happened over the course of a few days at the end of August and beginning of September of last year. After all, it's only been a few months since New Orleans, one of America's most beautiful and charismatic places, was pretty much destroyed by the rains and winds brought by the hurricane called Katrina.

It's to playwright Jeffrey Bruner and director Patrick Rybarczyk's credit that they are able to take this unscarred-over memory and make it into meaningful theater. Katrina: State of Emergency succeeds where all good drama succeeds. It takes you on a journey—a hellish, emotional journey of outrage and despair, but ultimately a valuable and memorable trip.

Bruner weaves together a collage of voices to create a portrait of the events that took place in the days just before Katrina hit and the chaos she left in her wake. We hear personal stories from residents who lost almost everything but their spirits and struggled valiantly to salvage what they could and to help those around them, from tourists who came for a vacation and were instead trapped within a nightmare, from local officials outraged and overwhelmed by the sudden demands and the lack of support from those above them, from workers who tried to do their jobs of salvation against near-impossible odds and from politicians, who blundered, ignored, glad-handed, and finally, made a mess of an already dire situation. What's done here is how the playwright and director show the failings and ineptness of our president. For every heroic tale, for every story of personal grief and loss, we have George W. in counterpoint, babbling rhetoric about how he was fighting the good fight in Iraq, how he was improving Social Security, and giving short shrift to the devastation that was right before his eyes, like so many bodies floating in flood waters. Intermixing these tales of bravery and despair with Bush's political ramblings underlines the irony and points a rightly accusing finger at the president, showing him to be, at best, clueless, and, at worst, heartless.

Rybarczyk was fortunate to have a talented ensemble to work with in bringing these disparate voices to life. Outstanding among them was Deanna K. Reed ( no relation ) , who managed to jump in and out of characters as different as an elderly storm survivor and Bush himself with sensitivity and credibility. As a blogger who recounted the days of the storm from his abandoned high-rise, Steve Best made the despair and outrage that crippled the city after the storms winds subsided real. Rybarczyk was also smart in keeping things simple: a black stage, few props and a few telling video projections ( Mike Tutaj ) made the horror of the disaster more real, living more brilliantly in our imaginations.

Katrina: State of Emergency, with its slow, careful build-up of outrage, will make you angry and leave you feeling very vulnerable. And I think that's just what it sets out to do.

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