Closet Land is certainly haunting. There was no shelter from this play’s unremitting psychological ferocity and physical fierceness of political D/s (Dominance and submission). Over time it became far from a play staged by Factory 449 in an aggressively powerful manner by Rick Hammerly. It became a nightmare I was living in too; about the ruthless use of power of the State over one citizen, who represents all citizens.
The play made me feel as if I were in Abu Ghraib in that infamous photograph; hood over my head, standing on a box with wires attached. But Closet Land was written by Radha Bharadwaj in the early 1990s well before what we now know about Abu Ghraib became public knowledge. Bharadwaj’s script also pre-dates by two decades all the current privacy concerns raised by Edward Snowden’s NSA releases.
The performances of the two Closet Land two actors must leave them spent and needing time to become their own selves again after the final black out. In her role as a victim, Sara Barker was found a way to portray degradation, pain, and resistance without going overboard and losing me. The unrelenting dominance and seeming supremacy of the government’s truth-seeking interrogator, played by David Lamond Wilson, was often enough a shocker but at times could be mannerly rather than ‘in the moment.’ Overall, the authority of Director Hammerly was clear; he had the capacity to turn the audience into his quietly cowering speechless minions.
So a quick look of what is at stake in Closet Land. A writer of children’s books has been hauled off for an interrogation. Her books are thought to be propaganda leading impressionable children to grow up not trusting the authority of the State. The State interrogator insists that the writer’s books, especially an unpublished one called Closet Land, contains hidden messages against the State. In an unrelenting, intermission-less performance, the interrogator tries to “break” his victim so that she will sign a confession. He wants to re-educate her, not murder her. If she does so, he promises the pain and agony will stop. He tries any number of methods and means to “turn” her. Not so easy a task he comes to discover.
Now, think about being a few inches, yes inches, away from the acting prowess and detailed realism especially of Barker. In its staging, does Closet Land have us become part of the all-powerful state? Shouldn’t we try to reach out to intercede somehow? Or have we become bystanders walking away from horrors and seeing nothing?
Here is just one piece of the dialogue of this nightmare. It is staged with plenty of depictions of psychological violence. Perhaps a heated barbeque grill is nearby, or perhaps wires attached that can and will give a jolt. The words of interrogator Wilson are delivered as he is dressed in a well-fitted suit and tie (by Costume Designer Scott Hammer) delivered in a refined, soft spoken, urbane manner. Or maybe he is less gracious and speaks with a snarl and bit of gruffness. He is his own good cop/bad cop. Oh, one last item to know – victim Barker has just drank what she had expected to be refreshing water only to spit out what is a more salted human fluid or she has been fondled roughly.
Barker: Your aim is to humiliate and debase the human being. There is no justification for cruelty.
Wilson: Our aim is to rid society of negative influences. This end justifies certain unorthodox means.
Through it all, Barker is a pillar of human strength and resistance in her solitude against this up-dated world of Kafka or Pol Pot or Abu Ghraib. She has no one to save her. Barker has her own mantra that she repeats to herself and to Wilson. She repeats it through real tears no matter what her abuse. It is a mantra that gives her hope of survival and sanity. It is like a moment of personal rebellion with the only weapon she has; her mind and her words. “You can have my body, but you can’t have my mind”.
As things become even more hopeless for Barker she finds a special place to go disappear into; her own internal personal closet land as she dissociates from reality. This clearly pisses off Wilson in ways that leave him frustrated and speechless; and powerlessness. And then a moment with a small gesture of in-his-face defiance without a word spoken that belies her possible situational insanity.
This is a play for those who want to know what we normally don’t want to know. There are no distances in the minimalist set design by Greg Stevens. There are seats for only 32 audience members. The audience surrounds the squared-off “stage” in groupings of eight per side.The stage consists of a metal table, two metal chairs, with a most interesting use of shower curtains with a plenitude of props (by Marie L.Schneggenburger) to add to the unpleasantries. Lighting from Dan Covey is full of shadows from a few dim incandescent hanging lights. The lighting adds tremendous clout to the production’s hold.
Closet Land is harrowing. Under Hammerly’s strong hand it is ruthless. It is not for everyone. But don’t let discomfort keep you away, if you have a desire to drink in what is served.
Bhardawaj’s Closet Land depicts violence of all sorts: against a human being, against a woman, against a citizen. It is not meant to charm. It is exceedingly personal as viewers will filter the production through their own lives. As for the questions raised about the unchecked power of the State. Well, this is 2015, we all know the answer to that question, don’t’ we? Can’t be smug anymore can we?
Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.
Note: Closet Land is for Mature Audiences. It’s not suitable for children. It contains violence, explicit language, and sexual content.
Spine: ‘Closet Land’: “A Lie Told Often Enough Becomes the Truth (Lenin, Vladamir)” by Robert Michael Oliver.