Presented by Flat Earth Theatre
By Ariel Dorfman
Directed by Jake Scaltreto
Trigger Warning: Some light cursing, conservative politics, implied torture
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Watertown) If dystopian science fiction is any indication, our future is bleak. In the future, rich people are very rich and the poor are very poor. The politicians are corrupted, we have no global resources, and the ecosystem has gone to pot. The good news is that there is always an hero to save us… eventually. The future sounds a lot like the present.
Not unlike Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil, Dorfman’s Reader is a story within a story set in a future where all potentially unpleasant emotional elements of life have been stripped away. Violence and sexiness are routinely scrubbed from all media sources. The government occupies all spaces. There is no true freedom of expression. Daniel (the handsome Robin Gabrielli) is a suave yet dirty government censor who discovers that the most recent novel to cross his desk parallels his own life. In this novel, Daniel is Don Alfonso an unscrupulous censor working on film scripts. He is rightly paranoid and begins a short-lived journey towards redemption.
Everything about this production is used to provoke discomfort in the audience. While triggering for some, the results are brilliantly effective at inducing anxiety. The sound design by Chris Larson quietly bullies the ears as the lighting by Chris Bocchiaro robs us of visual clarity. What could be an average office scene is subtly transformed into a reality of normalized angst. The characters are uncomfortable in their story and we share their distress.
There are so many twists and turn in the plot that it is difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction within the play. This has nothing to do with the excellent work of the cast and director and everything to do with Dorfman’s convoluted writing. Gabrielli’s performance as Daniel/Don Alfonso should win him awards*. He manages to make his conservative goon character likeable despite despicable actions. The audience feels sorry for him even though he dug his own grave and deserves to lie in it in Hell. Equally as powerful are the performances by Samuel Frank and Matthew Zahnzinger. Frank as The Director is so slimey he could live under soap scum. Zahnzinger is creepy as f*ck as The Man.
The women of Reader also give excellent performances. Unfortunately, Dorfman doesn’t give them much to work with. To explain, a short comparison: In his opera, Così fan Tutte, Mozart makes the claim that all women are changeable. In reality, Mozart is proving that his male characters are wankers. The philosopher Don Alfonso bets Guglielmo and Ferrando that their intendeds, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, will not remain faithful to them should they go to war. Long story short; the ladies don’t, Don Alfonso wins, but everyone is forgiven. No one thinks to accuse Don Alfonso of being a massive jerkwad. It’s just assumed that women are idiots.
Don Alfonso of Cosi might as well be the same Don Alfonso in Reader. He has similar morals and treats the female characters the same way. Women are merely foils and props for the male characters to posture around. They are not actual people with subplots of their own. Meanwhile, the male roles are fleshed out magnificently. It’s depressing.
Go to see Reader. The cast give excellent performances. The design elements are effective. The direction by Jake Scaltreto is just wonderful. It’s the script that’s lacking. Dorfman’s play has the potential to be great but it isn’t. It won’t be until he gives his female characters the opportunity to be actual people.
*I don’t make these decisions but if I did…