By Rhada Bharadwaj
Directed by Lucas Maloney
Produced by the Molotov Theatre Group
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Something about this season of holiday cheer and good will makes me seek out edgier fare. Closet Land, an intense psychological drama involving a government operative’s harsh interrogation of an author whose children’s books allegedly contain subversive messages more than fills the need. It’s a disturbing piece of theatre that receives a solid and mostly involving production by the Molotov Theatre Group.
Closet Land has an interesting background, having originated as a 1991 film (starring Alan Rickman and Madeleine Stowe) that the author then adapted for the stage. In many ways this intimate two person drama seems best suited for a black box theatre. Not only does it benefit from the immediacy of the stage, the allegorical nature of the work, with two unnamed characters in an unspecified setting, is less distracting in a theatrical production.
The story opens with the Woman (Jessica Hansen) in an interrogation room shortly after she was seized from her home. She is wearing a simple cotton night gown and barefoot, and she is alternately frightened and indignant as she addresses her interrogator. The Man (Alex Zavistovich) is a powerful figure dressed in an olive army sweater, a leather jacket, and black pants and boots. He is initially polite, someone who is merely keeping the Woman company while awaiting the letter of apology that will allow him to release her, but then matters become more ominous.
He starts interrogating her about her children’s book which may be a disguised tool for subversive indoctrination. After all, children make the best receptacles of propaganda. In her story Closet Land, a child who is punished by confinement, retreats to a fantasy world with imaginary friends. Is the story just a cheerful, harmless piece of fluff as the Woman claims, or an Orwellian piece based upon real characters who are working to undermine the government?
The interrogation turns progressively more intense, involving both psychological and physical torture (consider this your first warning). After brutal treatment the author claims that the book is based upon unsettling events from her childhood, and the interrogator makes her relieve the deeply upsetting trauma (your second and final warning). This leads to a sharp twist near the end that you may find deeply affecting, highly contrived, or both.
Jessica Hansen takes a while to settle into her role, but ultimately gives a performance that is both convincing and courageous. She is especially effective at conveying her fear of harm that may or may not be inflicted upon her. Alex Zavistovich has a difficult challenge with a character that ranges from a cultured sophisticate to a malevolent villain. Still, Zavistovich gives a satisfactory performance, especially during the middle portion of this one-act work when he is using deceptive psychological tricks in an attempt to break his subject. It would help if the emotional connection between the two characters was a little stronger.
The production elements are all well-done. Director Lucas Maloney help the action achieve a taut creepiness, aided by a simple yet plausible set by Mike Roike and an effective sound design by Ben Russo. It’s easy to believe that the play is occurring in an actual prison setting. The moments of brutality are intense yet credible, showing an admirable restraint for a theatre with a love of Grand Guignol violence.
The real shortcoming of the stage production versus the film is that the movie found more successful ways to suggest multiple possibilities. Is the woman in a prison or a mental hospital? Is the big twist near the end real, or might it be another interrogation technique? Does the woman have the strength to survive, or is her coping technique the start of an irreversible descent into a world of her own making? The more the audience tries to imagine such possibilities, the more powerful the theatre experience becomes.
Closet Land is a serious and affecting drama. It may not be suited to everyone’s taste, but there’s definitely room in DC theatre for works like Closet Land, even during the holiday season.
Running Time: 1:20 (no intermission).
Where: 1409 Playbill Café, at 1409 14th St. NW, Washington, DC
When: Until Dec. 13, 2008. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 6 PM.
Tickets: $18 ($15 on Wednesdays). Purchases can be made at the door or through the website