A most powerful, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying theatrical work blew into town from Portugal this past weekend in a double-bill by Mundo Perfeito. It was a shame that so few people saw it.
The work of Mundo Perfeito under founder, artistic director, writer and actor Tiago Rodrigues is marked by an unusual intellectual heft and political bite. It’s not a style of theatre Washington gets treated to very often.
So much is left unexplained. Three fingers below the knee opens with two actors, a man and a woman. They look at the audience. They walk over to a clothes rack on stage right, disrobe, and put on costumes from another era. Their workmanlike approach suggests they are playing what they are: actors and the stage is just that: a stage. Chairs are piled to one side of the stage plus a chaise longue and a few other set pieces, all “under tight wraps” in cellophane as if waiting for movers to put everything in storage.
The man and the woman sit and watch the audience and then face upstage as words began to appear on the surtitle screen. Strange snippets. Soon audience members began to recognize stage directions from famous plays. There are recognizable titters. As the two actors begin to speak, their text seems to be entirely taken from censored notes on plays that had been cut or expunged completely during the period from 1926-1974 when Portugal was under a brutal dictatorship. The title for instance is taken from one of the rules of proper theatrical decorum, where women’s skirts could not be raised higher than three fingers below the knees, to save the public from feminine lasciviousness.
A huge hanging bulletin board that dominates the stage is crowded with scraps of notes, a schematic map of researched censorship markings and pictures of famous writers and playwrights from the Greeks, Shakespeare and Moliere to twentieth-century giants including Hemingway, Brecht, Albee and Pinter – all whose writings came under the censor’s knife or expunged completely.
The actors represent both the censors whose sensibilities have been greatly disturbed by the “dangerous,” “shallow,” “ over-the-people’s heads,” “not up to the people’s dignity “ works but also the actors from that period, who have to respond, second guess and learn to re-write and re-memorize whole passages to get by the ever careful watchfulness of the censors. There is one scene where the surtitles, which have provided helpful translations for those of us who don’t speak Portuguese, morphs into an actual script where words are crossed out and replaced. Actors in and out of different period costumes hurriedly try to memorize in the moment and keep up with the illogic of such doctored scripts. Suddenly we are in the world of the theatre of the absurd and the texts become sheer nonsense.
IBERIAN FESTIVAL: global arts remix
Includes 7 theatrical productions
March 3 – 24
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
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At one point I pulled back, thinking critically, “Okay, I get the point,” but as the show quickens with both aural and visual images piling up, I realize my experience is the point. I too become dizzy, overwhelmed, exhausted, and deadened by the unabated work of the censors. It’s hysterically funny but also horrific as the message gets pounded in: “The public does not have the baggage to understand, ” “The public will not benefit…,” and “It insults the public…” This was how they treated Albee. As for Harold Pinter, “We can save you the trouble…”
I must confess I had a personal connection to the period and the censorship Rodrigues was depicting. In the mid-1970’s I read “Tres Marias” (“Three Marias,”) a book co-authored by three contemporary women who came together to describe their experience of being Portuguese women living at that time. Their act of meeting weekly to speak and more shockingly write of the condition of Portuguese womanhood had the book banned, the women arrested and charged with treason. Their writing brought to the world’s attention the plight of women in many countries, thrown into jail or asylums for speaking out or simply having the desires that women have. I met one of the authors and wrote a play, Maria Anon, that wove together their writing and the character that inspired them, of Maria Alcoforado, a 17th century, nun seduced and abandoned by a French chevalier, whose letters are part of the classic Portuguese canon.
The actors in this play, Isabel Abreu and Goncalo Waddington, change chameleon-like their emotions in a tour de force of acting. They strut, stagger, pontificate, laugh hysterically, weep, rage, and move like sloths – their slow motion distorting their faces and sounds as if literally running down their batteries. I felt privileged as if observing a workshop with two brilliant performers as they discover and share with us in the most raw way the building blocks of a performance.
All this reminded me of the good work of Augusto Boal, Brazilian social activist and sometime politician, theater theorist, and founding director of Theatre of the Oppressed. Boal was living in Brazil in the sixties – a country also under military dictatorship at that time – and not only survived imprisonment and torture but used this experience to radicalize the experience of theater. He developed a novel approach to theater-making and performance which sought to break down barriers between what is on stage and the audience, bringing the audience into the experience as “spect-actors,” active participants.
The second play, By Heart, went even farther in this approach, although the themes built from one play to the other. In the intermission the entire “set” was struck and in its place ten chairs in a line across the stage. Rodrigues both directed from on stage and shared in this work as performer/story teller. He told the audience that the “performance” would begin when people from the audience sat in ten chairs. I watched a few young people leap up onto the Terrace Theatre stage, but, happy in my anonymity as a reviewer, I stayed in my seat. But as time went on and most of the chairs remained empty, I found myself compelled to join nine other “spect-actors” on stage.
Rodrigues is part director, part storyteller, and part magician. He is also a gifted linguist, showing us in Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian and English the power of language. In the guise of teaching us a Shakespeare sonnet, he wove stories of past and present of people — like Boris Pasternak and Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam – who stood up against censorship and oppression. He reminded us of the unstoppable power of literature and memory. As Ray Bradbury had shown in his iconic novel “Farenheit 451”, Rodrigues reminds us that the exercise of learning something by heart not only “furnishes the interior of the heart” but keeps a culture alive. I can only say that the experience was uplifting and even transformative – we even shared in a “holy communion” of sorts on stage.
To my mind, there was a third play or at least a third character in the evening. Earlier in the week, the leaders of the Kennedy Center had made an announcement about the upcoming season. There was much fanfare about all the trailblazing and the desire to break down the boundaries between forms and between performance and audience.
This evening showed me that “you have a long way to go, baby.” Kennedy Center might do well to sign up for some community sensitivity work the police are going in for these days before they roll out much more. Downstairs, the Kennedy Center ushers, a sort of “red guard,” barked at people for stepping up to the wrong line for tickets; upstairs the volunteer staff seemed more interested in jumping down the throat of someone struggling to turn off her cell phone before performance rather than welcoming the small but brave audience.
During the show, Rodrigues reminded us in some carefully chosen, amusing anecdotes that simply to do the work as he intended he had to jump through hoops (censorship?) to make sure the Kennedy Center and his company were “covering their asses” legally. “This is Washington, after all,” he reminded us. At the end of the show, the well-paid union hands barely disdained to look up from their well-defined tasks to see if Tiago Rodrigues was still in the wings. It was not covered in their contract. The “red guards” were there again to make sure the barriers between performance and audience were back up safely and asked us brusquely to leave the theatre promptly and in an orderly fashion. Augusto Boal would have had a field day.
Three fingers below the knee and By Heart was performed March 7 and 8, 2015 . Written and Directed by Tiago . Produced by Mundo Perfeito . Presented as part of the Iberian Suite at the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.