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Heart of darkness 

Black Battles with dogs haunts 7 Stages

Even before the beginning of Bernard-Marie Koltes' Black Battles With Dogs, themes of separation and taking sides announce themselves. The audience enters from the back of 7 Stages and immediately notices that the front couple of rows of seats are set off from the rest by a transparent curtain.

The play begins as a black man called Alboury (Isma'il Ibn Conner), lit by a single flashlight, enters from behind the audience. After an exchange with an unseen figure he passes through the curtain, but for much of the play he sits and stands among the seats of the theater's front row. The audience thus literally shares his point of view, as if we're with him "behind a tree" (as we're told he is). Viewed through the transparent screen, the pools of onstage light have the suffused quality of outdoor illumination at night, as opposed to the usual sharpness of stage lighting.

Alboury has come to a French-owned construction site in a West African country, and we view the play's three white Europeans as alien presences, much as Alboury does. An evening built around striking theatrical effects and several powerful moments, the play wrests considerable tension between decadent, post-Colonial whites and exploited Africans, but the interest level flags when the Europeans interact with one another.

Shirtless and shoeless, Alboury initially seems like an African tribesman, but the more we get to know his character, the less he fits that stereotype. He seeks to retrieve the body of his recently deceased brother and deflects the efforts of foreman Horn (Del Hamilton) to send him away. Wearing a tuxedo, Horn is preoccupied by his neurotic new wife, Leonie (Janice Akers), freshly arrived in Africa.

The play's fourth and final character is French engineer Cal (Daniel Pettrow), who's prone to bigoted rants about "nig-nogs" and bemoans the loss of his dog. He first maintains that Alboury's brother's death was an accident, but he proves to be responsible.

Sound designer Xavier Jacquot and scene and lighting designer Giulio Lichtner provide a wealth of moody effects, from the tongue-clicking "calls" of one unseen guard to another to the cascade of flowers, suspended in the air, at the right side of the set. The left side has a working, uncurtained shower in which Cal washes himself while talking to Leonie and wearing nothing but plastic bags over his boots; the running water and innocuous conversation give the scene an erotic charge.

Koltes died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 41, but his reputation has blossomed as one of France's most renowned modern playwrights. In Black Battles With Dogs he offers a premise evocative of Joseph Conrad and passages of soaring poetic force. Alboury tenderly describes how he and his brother went through life like there was "a little cloud" between them and the sun, requiring them to comfort and protect each other. Later, Cal takes the image of Africans spitting at whites (another motif of the play) and envisions an ocean of spittle that suggests Henry Miller penning a racist rant.

Conner retains Alboury's righteous indignation throughout, and his moments are the most charged of the play. In the second act he and Horn have a kind of showdown, with each standing at opposite ends of the stage and drinking whiskey in turn. But the scenes with Horn and Cal or Leonie seem to circle the same plot of ground, which proves especially wearing over the 90-minute first act. Akers does make Leonie seem consistent, even though the role makes striking changes (including a shocking act at the climax) over what's supposedly a single night.

Some crucial information in the play's last moments are nearly drowned out by the music and sound effects. Though Black Battles With Dogs is provocatively theatrical, it ultimately offers a rather simple equation that Africa is good and Europe is bad. The message may be familiar and the action at times tedious, but the presentation couldn't be more bold, asserting the late playwright's theatrical powers and affirming 7 Stages' presence as a theater with global reach.

Black Battles With Dogs plays through May 6 at 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $15-20. 404-523-7647.

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