In Aristides Vargas' play La Razón Blindada (Armored Reason), two guys meet once a week to play out scenes from Cervantes' El Quijote. (Vargas also directed his play, which is being presented here in its U.S. premiere at the 24th Street Theatre.) The uncredited set consists of wooden chairs and a table, all on rollers, so they float around the stage as though we were watching some kind of dream. And, as a matter of fact …
Among the other source materials for Vargas' text (which is performed in Spanish with English supertitles) is Franz Kafka's short story “The Truth About Sancho Panza” — which speculates that in telling the fantastical tales that are the spawn of his woes and dumping them on Don Quixote, Panza is able to relieve himself of the psychological burdens that necessitated the stories in the first place. This is the rite played out every Sunday between De La Mancha (Jesús Castaños-Chima) and Panza (Tony Duran, taking over from Arturo Díaz de Sandy).
Add to the source material testimonies by Chicho Vargas and other prisoners held in the maximum-security Rawson Prison in Argentina during the 1970s. (Between 1930 and 1980, only two democratically elected presidents completed their terms in Argentina, and they were both army generals. Thousands of citizens were imprisoned and tortured, or executed, in secret detention centers.)
This is the layer of reality, alluded to but not discussed at any length, that fuses this production's dreamscape to a brutal physical condition. Its strength lies in that calculated decision not to make this a prison drama, at least not an explicit one. In a play about invention and liberation, this decision allows us to render the characters' confinement as real or as allegorical as we wish. It leaves open a plausible interpretation that La Razón Blindada is an Argentine Waiting for Godot, in which one of the vagrants is routinely beaten for no reason whatsoever — unless you consider sadism a reason.
The playwright was born in Argentina; at the age of 20, in 1979, he fled to exile in Ecuador in order to escape the regime of President Jorge Videla, who came to power in the coup that deposed Isabel Perón. Videla was later charged with and convicted of human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity, including forced disappearances, widespread torture and the extrajudicial murder of political opponents and their families.
It's within this unspoken yet clearly understood context that Panza and De La Mancha perform their weekly clown show for each other — in moments both funny and fantastical — from prison, from the seventh level of hell, in order to preserve whatever is left of their sanity and their lives. The actors demonstrate spectacular skill at interlocking comic timing with depths of anguish.
Between these animated central scenes, we see projected images of a desert landscape, not unlike the Mojave. Sometimes, in front of that image, we see the two men in silhouette, slogging, slouching, as though toward Bethlehem. The power of this image is heightened by a recording of Gabriel Fauré's Élégie for Cello. The sections of the music used in the production are from the lugubrious and orchestrally rich opening — the effect being to lift one from a theater on 24th Street and Hoover Avenue into a state of suspended animation over that desert, which is really like hovering over a vista of some huge desolate expanse and thereby feeling reduced and awed by the scale and its perspective.
While the music plays, and when the men are not seen dragging themselves across this projected landscape, we see them in their rolling chairs, performing jerky choreographed gestures, in juxtaposition against the music's solemnity and grandeur. This is to suggest that they're enduring, or failing to endure, torments of metaphysical proportions.
It's a bit of a strain for non-Spanish speakers to receive a play such as this, which combines whimsy and intellectual rigor, in supertitles. Yet there are lines that linger: “Inside, you are a prisoner of injustice; outside you are a prisoner of ignorance.” And, in an ontological loop that's supposed to be arguing for the liberating power of fiction: “What never took place cannot die. That's why God still exists.”
There's a very different prison on a very different landscape in Joseph Fisher's wonderful new play, A Wolf Inside the Fence, closing this week at Hollywood's Open Fist Theatre Company. The place is Oregon, and the prison is a public high school where the most jaded of history teachers, Linus McBride (Arthur Hanket), takes a young, slightly snarky, whip-smart, cigarette-puffing student named Marion McNeely (Charlotte Chanler) under his wing — as much as an aging male teacher can with a female ward, because Mr. McBride is a profoundly moral teacher. And “ward” she almost is, having just been released from a detention center, and now being in foster care.
Much of the richness of Fisher's writing, and director Benjamin Burdick's interpretation of it, comes from the steely facades of competence and knowing it all, by both teacher and student, that provide armor against the onslaught of spears and arrows hurled so insanely, pointlessly and often in the wrong direction by the culture in general, and by the school system in particular.
Everyone gets gored. The trick is to avoid bleeding to death.
Hanket's performance is a treasure. It would be so easy to overplay the bristled hide of a man teaching history in a culture of diminishing attention spans that has no respect for or curiosity about much of anything that went before. (I teach at a state university where only four out of 50 general-education students in a world-theater course had ever heard of Arthur Miller.) To some degree, Hanket wears on his sleeve that generalized anguish of being in the wrong place in the wrong century. But that's not to be confused with bitterness. Somehow, Hanket tempers all the innate cynicism that accompanies knowing too much for one's own good with indescribable tenderness. To be so world-wise and so tender at the same time makes for a magnificent rendition of a glorious character, who knows exactly which rules he will break, and which he won't.
Perhaps it's because he's about to retire to a sheep farm he just inherited so he just doesn't care anymore, or perhaps it's his oddly tuned moral compass that permits him to share cigarettes with Marion before class. This is not a particularly good idea, if one makes a virtue of etiquette, or even health. For this, he's reprimanded by the principal, Judy Bench (Amanda Weier, in another lovely performance), a competent young woman who strides around campus pretending to be in control. There's the subtlest of glimmers in Weier's eye, a twist of self-mockery that lets it be known that Judy doesn't quite believe her own posturing. So her reprimanding Linus for smoking with a student comes ever so slightly honey-coated. Or perhaps it's the residue of her having to cut another of his history classes due to budget constraints, and the priorities of having students pass the “No Child Left Behind” tests that don't make history a priority.
That tenderness underlying Hanket's Linus makes it completely plausible that Marion will eventually fall for him. She's no romantic, and how she deals with these alien stirrings of her heart is a test for both writer and performer, a test both pass with flying colors.
And if everyone seems just a little too good to be true, there's math teacher Harold Carson to put things wrong. With Colin Walker's sly performance, Harold also knows which rules he'll break, but he's too arrogant and too much of a cipher to get away with it. The play needs him as a guide for how the world really turns.
Act 2 gets into all the psychological reasons why these characters are suffering from gravel burns after having been tossed off life's highway, which causes the play to implode ever so slightly. And this is only because Act 1 has such a poetical largesse, being about the end of history. That's a hard Act to follow.
Because, if you have a history that nobody around you cares to acknowledge or even know, you're just a crank who, as far as the rest of the world can tell, makes up stories. And that's when you become a little like Don Quixote or Sancho Panza: What's real and what's a fantasia grow increasingly difficult to fathom. The only task that matters, then, is doing whatever it takes to get out of prison.
LA RAZÓN BLINDADA (ARMORED REASON) | Written and directed by ARISTIDES VARGAS | Presented by EL INSTITUTO de CULTURA de BAJA, CALIFORNIA, MEXICO; LA UNIVERSIDAD AUTONOMA de SINALOA, MEXICO; and the 24th STREET THEATRE, 1117 W. 24th St., L.A. | Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Nov. 7 | (213) 745-6516
A WOLF INSIDE THE FENCE | By JOSEPH FISHER | Presented by OPEN FIST THEATRE COMPANY, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Oct. 9 | (323) 882-6912