Review: ‘New Guidelines for Peaceful Times’ at Spooky Action Theater

It is mid-April, 1945. The war in Europe is nearly over. However, neither a proper armistice nor formal surrender has been signed by the Allies with the former Nazi regime. It is an unsettled time between war and peace.

Carlos Saldana as Segismundo and Michael Kevin Darnall as Clausewitz in New Guidelines for Peaceful Times, now playing at Spooky Action Theater. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Carlos Saldana as Segismundo and Michael Kevin Darnall as Clausewitz in New Guidelines for Peaceful Times, now playing at Spooky Action Theater. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Beyond formally ending the war, new policies and guidelines for admittance of millions upon millions of refugees and immigrants during the more peaceful days ahead have to be developed. A central question: what if a high-level official makes an error in judgment allowing a former Nazi to resettle in a country like Brazil? These were real-life questions, not a playwright’s imagination.

This is the setting for the strong magnetic pull of Spooky Action Theater’s U.S. premiere of New Guidelines for Peaceful Times by Brazilian playwright Bosco Brasil.

The specifics of the fictional New Guidelines for Peaceful Times are these: Into the world-wide heated cauldron of refugees seeking shelter from the storms of war, arrives a single individual seeking shelter in a new country. He is a refugee from war-torn Poland. He arrives on the doorstep and into the cramped office of a suspicious Brazilian immigration official. The Brazilian official has the power to admit the refugee. Will he? To be admitted, the stranger from Poland must convince the wary immigration official that he is worthy of admittance. And the stranger, as well as the audience, learn that the immigration official has his own backstory that will affect his decision.

Under the delicate, sympathetically toned direction of Roberta Alves, New Guidelines for Peaceful Times is an intimate uninterrupted provocative conversation, not a belligerent shouting match. Alves provides for the two characters to have not only visual shadings like a chiaroscuro painting, but verbal pitches like a cello-laden concerto. What Alves has accomplished is to provide for the play’s two characters to have a slowly danced power exchange.

Alves and set designer Teca Fichinski also add to the production’s persuasive nature by placing the 42-member audience in alley seating. The audience, like the two characters, is confined within a wood slat cage-like set. The audience members, who can often see each other, become confidantes and onlookers. They add their own shadings to what playwright Brasil originally penned.

One of the two characters has power and plenty of well-founded suspicions. The other is a Zelig-like individual with oodles of charm trying to find safety in a new land.

The Brazilian immigration official, Segismundo, is played by Carlos Saldana. Segismundo is a bundle of nerves from the start. Those above him who he expected to provide guidance, are no longer around. They no longer care about Segismundo. He has done his share of following orders that have harmed others. “I obey orders” as he says. There is no longer a policy book with approved guidelines to follow about admitting people into Brazil. Yet, he is the one who has the approval stamp of admittance on his desk. All he needs is convincing. Perhaps a story that brings him to tears will suffice? What will the increasingly unsure of himself, perspiring man decide now that he is on his own?

Michael Kevin Darnall plays Clausewitz, the stranger from Poland. At first uncertain of how to proceed to make his case for admittance, he charms his way to get more time to make his case. Darnall as Clausewitz begins to mentally dance with Saldana’s Segismundo buying time, obtaining clues each time Segismundo speaks. When one attempt to convince Segismundo fails, Darnall quickly hatches another. He is relentless. Is he a former Nazi or a Jew or something else? Is he a farmer or a theater actor? How did he learn to speak Portuguese? The list goes on, but each time Darnall as Clausewitz opens a new line of pressing his point for admittance. Darnall is simply impressive how he uses sly eyes to express himself; then his voice follows and finally then, only then does his body move. His performance is a fine lesson in expressive acting from the brain outward. He does not lose his sense of poise being “in the moment” as he plays off of his fellow actor Saldana in a dance of shifting power.

Michael Kevin Darnall as Clausewitz in New Guidelines for Peaceful Times, now playing at Spooky Action Theater. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Michael Kevin Darnall as Clausewitz in New Guidelines for Peaceful Times, now playing at Spooky Action Theater. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Sure, a few scenes in New Guidelines for Peaceful Times have “Deus ex machina” moments. But not so much as to reduce the high marks this hothouse of a two-hander production earns.

The Spooky Action production of New Guidelines for Peaceful Times provides for a willing audience to live with the characters in a world built on quicksand. Under Alves’ fine touch, the Spooky Action audience has an opportunity to put itself in the shoes of another, whether an uncertain bureaucrat with a past and no clear directions from above or a stranger knocking on a door looking for shelter and safety. There is plenty to ponder.

Spooky Action once again provides D.C. area audiences with a play from a likely unknown playwright that few others in our area produce. This is welcome in a world-class city like D.C.

And after all, the refugee subject matter is not so far from us in D.C., is it? The questions of what to do when travelers from foreign lands knock on our doors seeking a safe place to live and are met by ICE? As playwright Bosco Brasil wrote in his Spooky Action program note: “New Guidelines is not just about one man’s struggle, it’s about the struggle that all refugees and migrants experience nowadays.”

Running time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.

New Guidelines for Peaceful Times plays through October 28, 2018, at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

Note: Brasil donates his royalties from the play’s productions to AVSI-USA Foundation, an international NGO that supports refugees and migrants around the world. Information about AVSI-USA is at www.avsi-usa.org