nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 6, 2005
Tight Embrace, a new play by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas at INTAR, takes place in an unnamed (presumably Latin American) country, where an old woman is being held hostage in a safe house. In the first act, we see her schmooze her two guards: one, a naive 17-year-old, she gently flirts with and mothers; the other, an older ex-farmer, she feeds lies about the first. At the end of this act, she's joined by a second kidnappee, the pregnant wife of a government official, who is herself a journalist.
In the play's second act, which is told from the old woman's perspective (everyone narrates his or her actions from the old lady's POV: why?), we see the younger woman cozy up to the younger guard, eventually winning from him a pencil and a notebook (both forbidden, according to the kidnappers' rules).
In the final act of the play, the younger woman, about to give birth, is carried out of the safe house. The old woman fears that the younger will be killed as a nuisance, but instead she is apparently freed. Then a turn in the fortunes of the rebels responsible for the kidnappings forces abandonment of the safe house.
The press materials state that Tight Embrace is about "the consequences of political violence... a world where violence is such a part of our daily landscape that it has become part of our DNA." To the extent that I understand Cortiñas's oblique, affectless script, I'd suggest that the opposite is true: Tight Embrace seems to me to be about the ways that our humanity survives and transcends even the most harshly inhumane circumstances. The relationships in the play—the old lady and the young guard, the pregnant woman and the young guard, the two women, the two guards, and even the old woman and the older guard—all evolve in the direction of kindness, comfort, and mutual trust. The "norms" of life in this house—which feel absurd in the Beckettian/Ionescoan sense—seem to break down and finally don't matter as the human instincts toward compassion and companionship overwhelm them.
A problem with the play, though, is that its reality feels so strained that it's hard to know whether we're supposed to accept what we're shown as real or understand that it's surreal/absurd. People certainly get kidnapped for political reasons all the time. But why would this old lady—whose son is, as far as we can tell, neither important enough to matter to the insurgents nor interested enough in his mother to pay her ransom—being kept alive for, apparently, years? Why does it take so many months for the wife of a government official to be rescued? Why don't the two women overcome the young guard while he's asleep and steal his rifle, a weapon he shares with the other guard (i.e., there seem not be either more guards or guns)? Why aren't there more guards or guns? Because the world of the play never quite made sense to me, I found it difficult to piece together more than a rudimentary idea of what Cortiñas intends as key ideas and themes here.
I'm not sure that director Lisa Peterson's production, which at least at the performance reviewed felt very low-energy, helps very much. Mikiko Suzuki's boxy, very spare set looks great, but I wondered throughout why we are allowed to see the stage walls beyond the safe house's walls: does this reminder of theatrical artifice mean something particular? Mia Katigbak does her usual fine work as the old woman, especially when she gets to demonstrate her wily manipulations of the younger folk around her. But Zabryna Guevara doesn't have much to do as the younger prisoner; ditto Robert Jiménez as the older guard. Andrés Munar, as the innocent younger guard, is terrific; this feels like a breakout performance for this excellent young actor.
Ultimately, I left Tight Embrace feeling a little bit alienated and a lot bewildered. The politics of the play fail to add up to very much, and the observations about the human experience—such as I could glean them—are sweet but hardly startling. What's this play trying to tell us? Whatever message Cortiñas and his collaborators wish to impart, it's been muddied by indistinctness and indifference.