The tortured souls of Closetland 

Jobsite’s latest is an intense, intelligent and pungent thriller.

There’s no arguing with the relevance of Closetland to events happening now. A quick glance at the Amnesty International website tells us of Chinese dissident Zhu Chengzhi, placed in a detention center without charge after he supposedly “disrupted public order,” of Iranian journalist Mohammed Sadiq Kabudvand, serving a 10-and-a-half year sentence because of his writing and human rights work, of Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab, charged with libel and imprisoned for one of his tweets on a social networking website, and members of the Guatemalan indigenous peoples’ rights group were attacked after a demonstration, leaving one dead and several injured. There are more who’ve been tortured, abused, maimed and have “disappeared.” In much of the world, it’s still a crime to speak freely.

And that’s the subject of Closetland, the provocative play written by Radha Bharadwaj (born in India but now living in the U.S.) and currently being presented by Jobsite Theater. Closetland is about a writer of children’s books who has been brought into a detention center to be interrogated. The Writer is there because the secret police in this unnamed country have found the manuscript of her latest book — titled Closetland — and believe it to be a thinly masked appeal for resistance against the totalitarian government. It would not appear, at first, to be that. It’s the story of a little girl who is locked in a closet by her mother. The girl deals with her anxiety by believing herself to be surrounded by animal friends, including a cat and a rooster. When the girl’s mother arrives to release her from the closet, the rooster warns her, and she pretends to have endured her sequestered hours on her own. She’s released and the story ends. It couldn’t be more innocent.

Or could it? According to the Interrogator, the little girl is a stand-in for the potentially dissident reader, the animals are members of the anti-government underground, and the mother is the tyrant who runs the police state. Isn’t this the case? No, says the Writer, insisting that she has no interest in politics and was writing not an allegory but a straightforward children’s tale. Unfortunately, the Interrogator has already made up his mind. And what follows — what makes up the greater part of the play — is his attempt to force a confession from his victim. He toys with her psychologically, gropes her, physically tortures her, blindfolds her and pretends to be more than one man. He makes it clear that it is through the breaking of her body that he will win her mind; and she insists her mind is the one part of her he can’t touch. In the contest that ensues, it’s never clear who will prevail. And it turns out there’s more to Closetland than we first guessed — though it may not be what the Interrogator assumes.

The Jobsite production is first-rate. Directed sharply by Gavin Hawk — his first job with this company — it features two excellent performances by David M. Jenkins, whom we’ve more often seen in comic roles, and Katrina Stevenson, who offers some of her best work in recent memory. As the Interrogator, Jenkins is both precise and ambiguous (not an easy feat for any actor). His character isn’t interested in the truth but in results. He wants a signed confession and nothing less. He can be kindly or vicious. He can soothe his victim or humiliate her, and at any moment, open a panel on the wall and remove yet another instrument of torture. As his antagonist, Stevenson is at first plaintive and then resolute. Though the wellspring of her unwillingness to break is never quite revealed to us, still she comes to win our admiration for her insistent resistance. Brian Smallheer’s set, of a simple room with a central table and two metal chairs, is deceptively innocent, and Stevenson’s costumes, from the Interrogator’s vested suit to the Writer’s nightdress (she was rousted from sleep), are innocuously convincing.

Closetland is intense, intelligent, and a pungent reminder of the dangers faced around the world by individuals at this moment. In the age of Guantanamo, maybe it’s more germane than we’d like to believe. But it’s also surprisingly hopeful — or at least that’s how I interpret it. When you’re living in Closetland, you find your optimism where you can.

I recommend that you have a look.

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