Theatre of Cruelty

Closet Land

By Radha Bharadwaj
Directed by Thomas E. Brady
Firedrake, Inc.
Creative Space Theatre
750 8th Ave., 6th Floor (718-626-3183)
Equity showcase (closes Sept. 26)
Review by Adrienne Onofri

Human rights are the central issue in productions by Firedrake, Inc., which made its debut last year with the anti-McCarthyist Are You Now or Have You Ever Been and followed it up with the New York premiere of this screenplay-turned-stage play by Radha Bharadwaj. Film critic Leonard Maltin said the 1991 movie version of Closet Land (written and directed by Bharadwaj, starring Madeleine Stowe and Alan Rickman) was "like a bad play that never went beyond workshop status." That harsh assessment does not apply to Firedrake's effort, although the play is essentially an overlong one-act. The material isn't "bad"-just relentlessly grim. The audience can appreciate the stellar performances and ambient lighting and sound, but such austere subject matter doesn't really make for a rewarding evening of theater.

Closet Land takes place in an unnamed time and place, where an author of children's books is interrogated and tortured by the thought police. It's not the "cheerful, harmless pieces of fluff" that have gotten the writer in trouble but an unpublished manuscript retrieved from her home: a story called "Closet Land," in which a little girl whose mother has locked her in the closet imagines the clothes to be her friends and protectors. The government interprets the story as an indictment of authority and arrests the author.

Which is where the play begins. For the duration of the play, the author undergoes numerous abuses and humiliations but refuses to sign the confession that will set her free. The audience must watch for over an hour as she is electroshocked, manacled, groped, and sexually degraded. Yuck. Regardless of its noble political intentions, Closet Land is simply too agonizing to be a great drama. And, although the play is written well enough, it's not exactly groundbreaking material: depictions of totalitarianism run amok go back at least to George Orwell.

The unpleasantness of the subject did not, however, negate the admirable work of the cast and crew. The detainee's panic and suffering were rendered vividly by Tina Horii, whose role-identified as Woman-is physically as well as emotionally grueling: she endured one scene lying on her back on a table, with her head hanging off the edge, and another (in which her hands were shackled) standing with one leg raised parallel to the ground. As her persecutor-known as Man-Joe Rinaldi also mastered a range of personas: he was alternately businesslike, vicious, and somewhat sympathetic toward his prisoner. The technical aspects of the production were also excellent, and set designer Kathy Rowlands's black trapezoidal panels made an unusual but appropriately bleak backdrop.

(Lighting, James McClure; sound, Alvaro J. Gonzalez.)
Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1999 Adrienne Onofri