Chilean-American author Ariel Dorfman is beloved in Boston this season. Flat Earth held a reading of Dorfman and Tony Kushner’s WIDOWS earlier this year, WIDOWS being the first in Dorfman’s Resistance Trilogy. READER is the second and DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, the third play in the series.
Flat Earth Theatre is currently staging READER (@ Arsenal Center through June 21st) and Open Theatre Project continues the run with DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (in Jamaica Plain through June 28th). MAIDEN is the most produced of the three: I’ve seen it twice. And there’s a movie.
This is my first READER experience and I must say that Flat Earth’s March production of WHAT ONCE WE FELT kept intruding into my memory as I watched READER, as both are about censorship and governmental control, especially where the flow of information is concerned. Both use publishing as metaphor. As I type that sentence, I’m reminded that our government is more than a little peeved at a certain Mr. Snowden for publishing information they didn’t want us to know. Maybe the repression in READER isn’t as far fetched as it seems to be.
As in Dorfman’s DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, the audience is unsure who is telling the truth, or for that matter, what is the truth. The characters in READER aren’t what they seem to be, either. On the surface we meet a censor, not just any censor. He’s a successful bureaucrat who hasn’t made a mistake in 20 years. His boss appreciates his work but his son isn’t satisfied with life, even though they’re all told this is paradise and “anyone who isn’t happy in Paradise is crazy.”
Life starts to unravel for the censor: His son won’t sign the loyalty paper and now he’s asking about his mother’s death. The book he’s currently working on (i.e. removing offending passages and cutting unnecessary detail) seems to be about him! Disturbing information seeps through: Things he doesn’t want made public: Talk of readjustment centers, violence, torture. Wait a minute, Dorfman is writing about Chile….isn’t he?
While I certainly admire playwrights who create torturous narratives so we the audience can have a (granted, very small) taste of the confusion and distress whole nations suffer on a daily basis, they’re a bit difficult to take…and more importantly, they’re extremely hard to stage. Kudos to director Jake Scaltreto for placing the audience on both sides of the theater, trapping the action in the center and for setting a slightly arched, artificial tone to the material.
Matthew Zahnzinger is brilliantly effective as “The Man” you never, never want to request your presence. His white face and asthmatic delivery make him terrifying. A visit from Samuel Frank as “The Director” of the censorship bureau isn’t going to be any fun, either. His manic stance and wild eyes don’t bode well for a pat on the back. Robin Gabrielli is the man at the center of this Kafkaesque tale. Will he help his son (James Hayward)? Did he harm his wife (Sara Jones)? Will he disappoint his mistress (Rachel Sachs)? Will he publish? Or is resistance futile?