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I spend part of each year in Argentina, and nearly all my friends there have expressed astonishment at the United States’ equanimity about surrendering basic rights and legal protections in the name of security since 9/11. They note that it took a dictatorship to deprive Argentines of those same rights. So when Gala Hispanic Theatre’s press photo for Las Paredes (The Walls), a 1964 drama by Argentina’s foremost absurdist, showed a hooded captive being tormented Abu Ghraibnstyle, I have to say my interest was piqued.
Griselda Gambaro’s works, mirroring the physical and mental abuse suffered by Argentines in a series of military dictatorships through several decades, often deal with oppressors and victims who feel powerless to resist them. The Walls, about a young man who is kidnapped, interrogated, and charged with nonspecific crimes by nameless government factotums, much resembles the “comedy of menace” plays (The Caretaker, The Birthday Party) that Harold Pinter Ôªøwas writing at about the same time. Along with Gambaro’s other plays and novels, nearly all of which deal with the dangers of passivity, The Walls earned its author enormous respect in Latin American literary circles as well as the unwelcome attention of the Argentine authorities. The government’s banning of one of her novels more or less forced her into a three-year exile to Barcelona in the ’70s.ÔªøÔªøÔªø
All of which seems to offer a persuasive argument for the approach taken at Gala by director Gabriel García, who hails from Argentina himself. He turns The Walls’ persecuting bureaucrat (Manuel Cabrera-Santos) and lackey (Cynthia Benjamin) into vaguely military figures and has them employ interrogation techniques resembling those used post-9/11 by U.S. forces overseas. (Benjamin’s buzz cut and khaki garb seem specifically designed to inspire thoughts of Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England.) And the solid-looking walls of the Spartan room designed by Guillermo de la Torre start to look more and more cell-like as they close in ominously on an anonymous captive (Carlos Castillo). By evening’s end, when those walls are about to crush him, he has been so traumatized he can’t walk through an open door. Instead, he sits motionless, and hooded, a figure from a photograph about to be crushed by history.ÔªøÔªø
Parallels notwithstanding, however, Gala’s production doesn’t pack the emotional wallop it should. Partly that’s because Gambaro devotes acres of verbiage and repetition to exploring the sort of situation Pinter always dealt with crisply, and partly it’s because the director belabors points until a situation that would be harrowing at 90 minutes becomes merely exhausting at an hour or so longer.
The performances he elicits from his cast are serviceable if not always subtle—Cabrera-Santos playing slickly unctuous good cop to Benjamin’s shrill, screeching bad, while Castillo moderates their prisoner’s resistance until it barely registers. And if a balky sliding door (you really want it to slam) and some staging oddities (interrogators typing pointlessly at computers when not tormenting their guest) compromise the evening’s claustrophobia, The Walls still registers as intriguing and ambitious.
Gala rarely tackles contemporary politics, preferring to concentrate on domestic dramas and classics. But the harsh circle of light with which Ayun Fedorcha repeatedly pins the captive to his chair, the far-off screams in David Crandall’s sound design, and the relentless inward sweep of de la Torre’s structured metal walls suggest that the troupe has the ability to bring considerable force to bear on political theater in the right circumstances. Audiences will just have to wait for the right circumstances.