Croatian National Theatre, Zagreb, premiered 14th October 2021
One body on top of another, on top of a sofa. As the lights come up, the couple breathes and moves rhythmically, fully clothed – a sex scene devoid of actual sexiness, a rough sketch of erotic choreography, performed as a chore, a task, an obligation between partners determined to make a baby.
Eva (Olga Pakalović) and Danijel (Igor Kovač) are trying, they really are trying. They are both past what is considered the human prime for baby-making purposes, and they have been trying for two years, effectively an eternity, for a wish that keeps slipping away unfulfilled.
The elusive goal strains their once romantic relationship, their touch is focused, desperate, and clinical, their commitment is at a breaking point that will either bind them together tighter than ever – or tear them apart forever.
This is the opening scene of 64, a semi-autobiographical text by Tena Štivičić, that recently premiered in Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. It stages the struggle of two people to become parents. As nature seems to remain uncooperative, the couple turn to the challenging and painful process of IVF, and Eva is faced with putting her body through a hell of never-ending hormonal shots and her mind through tortures of frail hopes.
The dramatic premise is simple, yet the experience represented is anything but. One is tempted to consider the play through the feminist critical framework as its thematic focus remains on gendered roles, primarily women’s issues regarding motherhood, but also touching upon pressures of conventional masculinity proscribed for men. Central to much of feminist theory and practice since the beginnings of the movement, the discourse on motherhood has only recently opened up in mainstream media and culture to the often deeply ambivalent relationship most women have towards becoming (and not becoming) mothers.
64 illustrates how difficult it is to figure out whether and when we are ready, willing, and able to become parents, what happens when we need help, not only from medical professionals, but our family and friends, without whose support the process can be unbearable. And yet, even as our inner circle does the best they can, the experience is always felt as essentially lonely, even in a loving partnership, even with the best intentions of those who surround us.
Eva looks to her terminally ill, but utterly cool and hilarious mother (played by the iconic Alma Prica), who tries to persuade her daughter not to drive herself insane as marriage and motherhood are hardly guarantees for a happy life. On the other hand, Eva’s chronically single best friend Bela (played with bittersweet strength by Lana Barić) offers as much support as she can, given that she can’t help but feel Eva’s decision to become a mother as a kind of betrayal.
At one point, Eva even gives into a failed fling with a young neighbour called Aleks (a decent performance by Luka Dragić with terrible fake tattoos), but walks away thoroughly unsatisfied. Danijel turns to his moody diabetic father (Dragan Despot easily stealing his scenes), as well as to an online gaming flirtation with a mysterious Luna (a short appearance by Tesa Litvan).
The doctor guiding the couple through therapy is compassionate but detached, knowing full well how demanding and uncertain the road ahead will be (performed by the standardly captivating Livio Badurina). Štivičić and director Arija Rizvić, along with the ensemble, capture the fractures of alienation and glimpses of conflicts inherent in the tightknit relationships on stage, sparks that can quietly fizzle out or devastatingly explode.
However, in many ways 64 rings somewhat conservative both artistically and thematically. Not only is the play extremely heteronormative and tending towards a happy ending consisting of married with children, but it also engages troubling tropes, starting with the cliché of a career-oriented woman faced with regret and fertility issues as she put off motherhood for too long.
The other characters do little to balance this out since they remain merely functional for the central conflict, and never grow out of their positions of supportive devices. The play deals with the still present stigma placed on childless as well as single women, pushes the topic of fertility issues to the forefront, but its pop feminism feels disappointingly basic and lightweight.
Director Arija Rizvić does a solid job staging the play, keeping the rhythm upbeat and dynamic, activating the comic potential of actors as well as the text, making the performance basically engaged and engaging. The text is translated into performance quite straight-forwardly, comedy is balanced well with the drama, but somehow everything remains on the surface, at no point delving deeper into the characters’ complexity, nor investigating more innovative possibilities of staging the play.
The stage design by Slovenian artistic group NUMEN / For use, frequent collaborators of the National Theatre in Zagreb, is reminiscent of a reduced 60s/70s aesthetic, adds to the retro, even dated, feeling of the play as a whole.
With a heavily used rotating stage, compartmentalized according to spaces and characters, the set is never still or empty, but the separate elements themselves seem somewhat anticlimactic and sad, with a bizarre plastic evergreen forest at its centre.
64 can easily remind one of an indie rom-com with elements of drama, adapted for the stage. It is easy, funny enough, relatively woke with important topics at the centre, held together fairly tightly by the ensemble’s performance and the active stage design. But as it arrives to its flat open ending, we are more or less back at square one, as everything and nothing has happened, happiness is postponed, seemingly indefinitely, and hope is more inertia than wholehearted belief. The play seems to suggest that when it comes to happiness, there is really no such thing in pure form, but even blindfolded and with no clear target, we still give it our best shot.
Author: Tena Štivičić,
Director: Arija Rizvić
Dramaturg: Mirna Rustemović
Scenography: NUMEN/ For use
Costume: Ana Fucijaš
Cast: Olga Pakalovic, Igor Kovac, Alma Prica, Dragan Despot, Lana Baric, Luka Dragic, Livio Badurina, Tesa Litvan