nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
August 15, 2007
Reader, by celebrated Chilean writer and activist Ariel Dorfman, is a psychological and intellectual labyrinth that rewards assiduous consideration. It is one of those shows that is fascinating at first look, but gives you more with each additional viewing. And I intend to experience it again myself.
The story is set in the future and revolves around a censor, Daniel Lucas, nicknamed "The Pope" and reputed to be "infallible." He receives an incomplete novel that bears a horrifying resemblance to his own life story. The opening scene portrays the main character of said script and conveys how powerful a censor can be: upon hearing from his secretary the mere title and author of a manuscript, "Secret Gourmet Dishes from the Convent" by Sister Carolina, the government censor immediately makes a judgment: "Now. In these monastic sauces, miss, there is no malice. No pollution, no aphrodisiacs, only natural herbs used. 200 copies recycled paper. Next?"
The omnipotent "Pope," however, must now confront his past deeds brought back by the novel, in which the protagonist sends his wife into a "Readjustment Centre" for anti-government remarks. She dies there and their son is haunted by the loss. As the story unfolds we see two mirrored lives collide and two sets of characters, played by the same actors, fade in and out of the picture until fiction and reality blur together. There is also a mysterious man representing all of Daniel's fears and perhaps even justice itself, and a director from a "Moral Resources Company" working on behalf of the powers that be.
Reader is a timely reflection on censorship by the authorities that are "controlling every adjective in the universe with the pretext of saving us from plagues they made themselves." Daniel, from believing that "fear is the root of all wisdom" to coming to terms with his own fears, finds what is really true for himself in the end.
This piece is as complex as Death and the Maiden, Dorfman"s best known play, but in a Memento universe. If I were to nominate ten contemporary plays for a "most challenging to direct" category, Reader would probably be on it. Therefore I have great admiration for the director Ianthe Demos for her intriguing arrangement and presentation of the flashbacks, illusions, and other inner thoughts Dorfman has laid out for "The Pope." All the actors deliver their double, sometimes triple, roles with great flair. Lighting design by Mike Riggs and set design by James Hunting deserve special praise for the arousing visual power they inject into the performance.
In the end, what I enjoyed most were the words by Dorfman. Witty and piercing, the mental landscape of the censor—someone who is in charge of the life of words himself—is depicted so intricately that a reading of the play is highly recommended. This is a puzzle that, once invested with careful examination and rumination, will reveal its elaborate and amazing design.