Produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
(l to r) Cynthia Benjamin, Carlos Castillo and Manuel Cabrera-Santos (Photo: Daniel Troconis)
Argentine playwright Griselda Gambaro took an enormous risk because she couldn’t keep silent about “the disappeared.” When she wrote The Walls (Las Paredes) in 1964, she was ahead of her time. She held up a mirror to the reality of never-ending military state terrorism, which started in the 1960s and peaked in 1983 during the Dirty War, a period of kidnappings, Nazi-like tortures and executions by security police.
The opening night audience, predominantly Spanish speaking, already seemed to be tuned in to contemporary Argentine history. But Anglo audience members, who may be conditioned by romantic musicals like Evita, (Eva Peron died in 1952) need more program notes on Argentina’s history of repression. So forgive my momentary digression.
Since the nineteenth century, Argentine theater has been a podium for political protest. But in 1965, Gambaro wrote The Walls to be deliberately obscure for her own protection. It’s an allegory from the underground, with abstracted, non-specific characters. Gambaro’s plays later became part of a genre, the Theater of the Grotesque or Theater of Violence, somewhat like the European Theater of the Absurd, that breaks with reality to expose the unprecedented human rights abuses beneath a calm daily life of censorship and fear.
Director Gabriel Garcia uses maximum stage space to establish a claustrophobic mood of subdued terror. Even the metal grid above the stage is used like a balcony for the Investigator (Manuel Cabrera Santos) and the Valet (Cynthia Benjamin) to keep an all-seeing eye on the boxed-in Young Man (Carlos Castillo) below. Sound designer David Crandall injects a pattern of eerie sounds, suggesting metal doors closing, humming motors, or an annoying rattle, like that of a rattlesnake. The GALA Hispanic Theatre Company so integrates stagecraft with lighting (Ayun Fedorcha), costuming (Alessandra D’Ovidio), and good, solid, clear-intentioned acting, that relevance to our times becomes clear.
The setting is nonspecific, deliberately remote but ordinary—at first glance, innocuous. A narrow slit-window and a shaded bulb light the room; a painted portrait of an unknown person hangs on a wall; the bed is stacked with white pillows. But when a soprano’s operatic aria fades out, a faint scream is heard off-stage. And even though we hardly react, we wonder about the sanity of the Young Man when he compares the sound to “Somebody about to surrender his soul……The scream made my hair stand on end.”
Perhaps that scream we heard merely came from the boredom of passing time and the situation isn’t so desperate. No, we have to admit that Gambaro is sharing her rage, instructing us, warning us to not be deceived by outward appearances. It’s the absurd situation of a young man in jail for no reason that holds our fascination.
A nameless youth, abducted by secret police, is interrogated in a comfortable room. Nobody knows why he is detained, but his captors, with deadly intent, manipulate his thinking until they dictate his every move. Every time the Young Man asks anxious questions about where and why he is being detained, the Valet and the Investigator insinuate that the prisoner is in trouble. But they also contradict themselves, telling their captive he has nothing to fear.
“What a scatter brained young man you are,” the Valet says, obviously putting him down. In contrast, the Investigator, who later expresses more feeling for the mad scene in the opera Lucia Di Lammermoor than for his prisoner, is gently played with mock-paternalism by Cabrera-Santos: “It’s mindless of you to arrive here without knowing the reason.” Thereafter, the prisoner is left alone to make up his own guilt for being a prisoner until he becomes totally passive and dependent to please his kidnappers.
Carlos Castillo effectively underplays the breakdown. You want him to scream but for what reason? All his needs appear to be taken care of. When he loses his father’s watch, that could represent the loss of time and memory of the past, his protest is a mere ripple. His dehumanization seems complete when his keepers give him a grotesque, pasty-faced doll, a symbolic mask of death.
Set designer Guillermo de la Torre has designed a wonderfully, menacing set that takes on a life of its own, like another character in the play. The walls of the room revolve to become iron, prison bars that slowly move inward as lighting and scenes change. Gradually, a cozy room is stripped of its decoration to become a confining cement cell so that the Young Man’s pacing is limited. Ultimately, the iron bars swallow him and we are left wondering: Will he live or die?
The net effect reminded me of the horror-filled suspense found in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, in which a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition is driven toward a pit by heated metal walls that move inward.
Ultimately the real horror for me in Gambaro’s play is that what was considered avant-garde and controversial in the 1960s seems by today’s standards tame. The undefined horror beyond the walls is left to our imagination. (Mass graves have been found in Argentina.) Also I wonder if important nuances are lost in the Spanish to English translation surtitles. But the theme that is universal is Gambaro’s obsession with passivity: How can people stand by passively and not stop the abuses of power that reach the heights of absurdity? Seeing how it happens in this play helps us to understand.
(Run-time: a little under 2 hours) In Spanish with surtitles, The Walls (Las Paredes) continues until Sunday, Feb. 25, 2007, at the GALA Theatre-Tivoli Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW, at Park Road (Columbia Heights Metro). Performances: Tuesday–Saturday, 8:00 p.m.; Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets: General Admission is Thursday and Sunday $30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday $34. Tickets for students, seniors (65+), and military are Thurs/Sun. $20; Fri/Sat $26. To order, call 202-234-7174 or (800) 494-TIXS. Or visit http://www.galatheatre.org