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'Closet Land' Is A Real Poke In The Eye With A Sharp Script

By Mari Wadsworth

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  IT COULDN'T HAPPEN in your America, you might tell yourself in the blue light, as a blindfolded woman is manhandled and handcuffed roughly to chair. Our government doesn't raid homes in the dead of night, kidnapping authors of children's books and accusing them of sedition--"subliminal indoctrination," to be exact. That doesn't happen in our democracy.

It's comforting to cultivate a smug distance from the atrocities committed elsewhere: We haven't fought a war on our soil since 1865; and our duplicitous foreign policy makers are all too happy to spare us the gory details of brokering dollars for dictatorships.

But you can't escape in Closet Land, Rahada Bharadwaj's fictional account of an anonymous woman tortured by an anonymous interrogator in an unnamed land. The circumstances may be ambiguous, but the intention is clear: We are not passive observers, we're witnesses, by implication responsible for the action onstage.

The set for Closet Land is spare--just a simple table, opposing chairs, a couple of filing cabinets, and a door. But there is no stage. At the very least, the audience also is on stage; we take our seats "in the room," lining either side of the interrogator's table. We not only face the heinous crimes dead on, we face our fellow viewers. Even as we observe, we too are being observed. There's no walking away anonymously from Closet Land.

The play, adapted by the author from the late-'80s screenplay for the movie of the same name, packs a powerful political message. Amnesty International has thrown its support behind both the movie and the play, which painfully illustrate the unthinkable: the suspension of justice for political prisoners the world over. Bravely acted by Carlisle Ellis (as Woman) and Clark Andreas Ray (as Man), Closet Land is almost unbearable to watch in its masterful execution.

But the closeted injustice revealed in the play's second half becomes its fatal flaw. It goes too far in explaining, even rationalizing, the true motivation for the woman's kidnapping and torture; and what's worse, seems to imply rape can be motivated by love. In so doing, this plot twist sets up a scenario not only unbelievable, but less compelling than the play's ambiguous first half. Even taking this broader concept of violation as metaphor, the much truer torture and suspension of human rights makes a far more compelling story.

Closet Land remains an emotive, even upsetting, experience. Its simulated torture will undoubtedly earn the respect of those who applaud the maverick trend in filmmaking and theater to preach non-violence by recreating violence that's downright sickening to watch. Conceptually, the worst crime committed here is that the story shoots itself in the foot by making the political too personal. But the actors' unflinching performances; the venue's appropriately tight quarters and effective scenic and sound design (by Richard Lorig and T. Greg Squires, respectively); and strong direction by founding UTC member A.J. Epstein are just the sort of incisive production values we've come to expect from UTC. It isn't pretty, but it's beautifully done...a brave start to a promising fourth season.

Closet Land, an Upstairs Theater Company production in association with Amnesty International's Western Regional Conference, continues through November 9 at the Theater Congress, 125 E. Congress St. Show time is 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. A warning to sensitive viewers: Closet Land contains scenes of simulated torture and abuse. Tickets are $10 general, $6 for students. Call 791-2263 for information, or see their website at www.pfu.net/upstairs.

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