Rubber is set in a modern-day, central-African country in which the natives have fairly recently taken over from their colonial oppressors. The aide of the head of security, General Thorson (John Thompson), is the son of the general’s old tormentor, Mazinski, though he denies it and goes under the name Maze (Werner Pauliks). Thorson spends much of the play getting friendly with Maze (in progressively more extreme drinking bouts) and trying to get him to admit that his father really was Mazinski.
Meanwhile, the chancellor of the university (Dan Snow), until recently Maze’s employer, enlists a secret agent -- Samuel (Daryl Lathon), Thorson’s cook – to inquire on behalf of the president whether Maze is a sorcerer in league with the rebels. (Whatever the color of the ruling party, there always seem to be rebels.) The themes of sorcery, or kindoki, and other primitive beliefs echo through the play as the unseen president (His Excellency) builds a case against both Maze and Thorson, using the chancellor and Samuel as proxies. The seeping paranoia includes such premises as "we know Maze is a sorcerer" (because a concoction of Samuel’s makes him dizzy) and "we know the rebels are selling His Excellency’s lungs to the dead."
In short, the play sucks the audience into a whirlpool of increasingly bizarre realities, all of which seem natural because the characters present them in an understated way. In flashbacks Maze reenacts his father’s torture of Thorson, bringing the psychological pressure to a boil. Thorson finally "convinces" Maze to confess to His Excellency’s paranoid delusions, but not without being himself condemned. As Thorson says at one point, the worst thing about his torture under Mazinski was that his tormentors approached him without anger, as though they had a simple difference of opinion; the horror of the play is that it unfolds logically (if through a series of contorted syllogisms), and yet the final vista is so bleak.
The play’s title comes from the substance that led Belgium to enslave the Congo in the 19th century. The sticky substance is one of many recurring metaphors central to the play ("it won’t wash off"). (In another striking image, Thorson describes olives as resembling chopped-off hands, another reference to the Belgian occupation.)
This paranoid but compelling vision was supported by utterly convincing performances by all. Actors not performing sat behind black screens, suggesting a continual presence like that of the dead in the characters’ imaginations. A reflecting drum cast weird patterns on a white scrim, stage center, for flashbacks. A few well-chosen set pieces (set design by Mimi Lien) suggested Thorson’s quarters stage right and the chancellor’s stage left. Subtle lighting changes (David Wilburn) made the most of the Festival rep. plot. A spooky sound design (Dyana Kimball) reinforced the twisted mood.
This is not a play about happy campers, but it made for an absorbing, sophisticated, and chilling theatrical experience.
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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton