When was the last time theater was a white-knuckle experience? Seventy-five minutes of heart-pounding, cold sweat, and conscience-prickling tension are yours for the taking at Factory 449’s visceral staging of Rahda Bharadwaj’s Closet Land, the stage version of the 1991 movie starring Madeline Stowe and Alan Richman.
Director Rick Hammerly–aided by set designer Greg Stevens, lighting designer Dan Covey and sound designer Thomas Sowers—locks you into an airtight, cold and clanging world of paranoia, suspicion and torment that is so convincing your eyes frantically search for the reassurance of the theater’s exit sign.
The airy, light-splashed Anacostia Arts Center is right outside the door, but inside the theater a small audience is being held prisoner, right along with Woman (Sara Barker), a popular children’s book author who is dragged from her bed in the middle of the night and brought to some sort of government facility in a nameless country.
The audience is freed after little more than an hour, but you’re not quite sure how long the Woman has been there or how long she’ll remain. Clad in only a thin, white cotton nightgown, the Woman sits on a metal chair at a metal table, being interrogated an agent, Man (David Lamont Wilson).
She’s accused of hiding subversive, anti-government messages in her stories. Woman steadfastly maintains her innocence, but the Man’s endless, increasingly menacing mind games bring to light that the Closet Land found in her books is no pastel, cotton-candy world.
As a child, Woman was locked in a closet by her mother, enduring psychological and other forms of abuse while left alone in the dark. To escape, she imagined Closet Land, where cats with bright green wings and other fanciful creatures befriended her and told her their stories.
This coping mechanism is the Woman’s creative spark. Can her mind also be her most potent weapon against the Man’s increasingly cruel and effective torture methods?
Closet Land is a provocative, taut battle royal between a prisoner and her accuser. The tables are turned more than once as the Woman discovers the strength in her mind as her body is broken. Similarly, the Man’s ruthless persona shows cracks of vulnerability.
Closet Land’s dialogue has a jarring rhythm and a nightmare poetry that you would find in evocations of hell written by Dante. The setting is uncomfortable and the language savage but sometimes jarringly lyrical.
Hammerly directs the action as a brutish dance to the death and the two actors clash, clasp and connect like two prima ballet dancers. Barker commands our empathy without being a victim—we can always see her mind at work, absorbing what is happening to her body and frantically figuring out a way to cope, to outsmart. She’s shocked and assaulted, but is never completely helpless. At the end, when she refuses the Man’s demands to sign a false confession for the last time, a pureness washes over her face that is astonishing to behold.
Wilson is the shape-shifting devil you never want to know. Smooth and glib in the beginning, he moves to emotional and physical violence with fluidity and horrifying grace. He changes characters and voices with the click of a button—never have the metallic clicks of switches, lids and buttons sounded so menacing as when Wilson’s Man is in control.
While definitely not for the squeamish or those sensory-sensitive, Closet Land electrifies as a harrowing journey into coercion and ability of the mind to be both prisoner and liberator.
Closet Land by Rahda Bharadwaj . Directed by Rick Hammerly . Featuring David Lamont Wilson and Sara Barker . Set Design: Greg Stevens . Lighting Design: Dan Covey . Sound Design” Thomas Sowers . Costume Design: Scott Hammar . Properties: Marie Schneggenburger . Fight Choreography: Casey Kaleba . Production Stage Manager: Gillian Shelly . Produced by Factory 449 . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.