An Actor Gives the Devil His Due: What Was It like to Embody Indicted War Criminal Slobodan Milosevic in Front of a Serbian Audience?

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"I GREW UP BETWEEN TWO WORLDS," SAYS Serbian-American playwright Milan Dragicevich. "When the war broke out in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the news that was aired in the West sounded to me like a child's fairy tale. I wanted to get at another truth. You could not read in the Western press, or the United States news, about the consequences of the NATO bombing. My background made me ask questions: What is right, and power, versus justice? Who has the power? Who holds the justice?"

These questions figure prominently in Dragicevich's Milosevic at The Hague, a play that charts the unlikely rise of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic through his manipulative appeals to Serbian mythology and nationalistic fervor, and deals as well with the 78-day NATO bombing of Serbia, the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague and the disintegration of a country. The play raises important questions about complicity and retribution--for Serbs, for Americans, for people of any country.

Milosevic at The Hague premiered in Northampton, Mass., in February '09 and was invited to the JoakimInter-fest, a four-year-old upstart theatre festival in Kragujevac, Serbia, this past October. Sheryl Stoodley, artistic director of the Northampton-based Serious Play! Theatre Ensemble, co-directed with Dragicevich.

Milosevic at The Hague pits Milosevic (played by myself) and his wife Mira Markovic (Kim Mancuso), against Carla del Ponte (Marina Goldman), chief prosecutor of the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia, and her legal team (Troy David Mercier, Andrew McClelland). The devil is given his due and, as it happened in real life, Milosevic makes an impassioned argument in his own defense by turning the spotlight on civilian deaths caused by the NATO campaign. But he is undone by the moral contradictions of his posturing--and by the moral courage of a young girl.

As counterpoint to the power plays of the defendants and prosecutors--Milosevic, Markovic and Carla del Ponte--the audience follows the transformation of a young peasant girl, Jelena (Linda Tardif), into a "warrior for peace." Her moral growth is in response to the loss of her idealistic brother, Jovan (Dan McNamara), an aspiring photojournalist killed in the NATO strike against the Serb Radio and Television head-quarters. The center's senior staff was warned of the attacks. But why, Jelena asks Milosevic, were 16 young journalists left behind? Did he need martyrs for Serbia?

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Jelena also confronts del Ponte. Why has the chief prosecutor not indicted NATO for its "war crimes" against civilians? (As alluded to in the play, del Ponte briefly appeared willing to do so, but quickly backpedaled.) Jelena's direct confrontations with del Ponte and Milosevic are (to use the playwright's own word) almost fairy-tale-like--yet Jelena symbolizes the spirit of peaceful resistance embodied in the quiet heroism of ordinary citizens who perform small acts of resistance.

As an actor, I was immediately attracted to the way Dragicevich's language lifted off the page, particularly in Slobodan's monologues addressed to "Johnny," his nickname for the unseen guard behind the security camera in his cell at The Hague. The monologues shift rapidly between self-serving oratory, trenchant political criticism of the West and personal memory, with a tendency to burst into a Johnny Cash or Frank Sinatra tune that is at once unnerving and oddly endearing.

Moreover, the script as a whole is boldly theatrical. It features a Serbian/Dixieland brass band running in and out at odd moments (something of an homage to Emir Kusturica's brilliant film Underground) and a chorus of vilas (the forest nymphs of Serbian folklore); the action rapidly intercuts between Slobodan's memories and fantasies, the unfolding trial at The Hague and the story of the Kosovar Serb peasant family whose lives are destroyed by the confluence of Milosevic's machinations and NATO's bombing campaign. …