Secret Obscenities

Studio Theatre – Mead Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

Remaining Performances:

Sunday, July 11, at 6 p.m.
Tuesday, July 13, at 9:15 p.m.
Saturday, July 17, at 3 p.m.
Sunday, July 18, at 7:15 p.m.

They Say: “Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, dressed as flashers, fight over a park bench across from a private girl’s school in Pinochet’s Santiago, Chile. Each man is there to destroy the girls’ innocence as they leave school. But are they merely sexual deviants or something far more complex and sinister?”

Ian’s Take: Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud both spent their careers fixated on repression. For the former, it was the political and sociological repression of the worker; for the latter, the psychological repression of sexual urges. How appropriate, then, that these two individuals — or, two individuals who say/think they are Marx and Freud — should find themselves on a park bench in Santiago, Chile in the mid-80s, in the midst of the Pinochet-led military junta that ruled the country at the time.

Secret Obscenities, written by Chilean playwright Marco Antonio de la Parra in 1984, is very much a play of that time and place; it’s a credit to de la Parra’s witty banter and the jigsaw-puzzle precision with which he fits them into this surreal situation that makes it entertaining whether you’re well-versed in South American politics or not.

But they’re not just there to have intellectual debate decades after their deaths: Both arrive at the park bench outside a school for girls wearing trenchcoats, furtive expressions, and little else. Sitting here on the park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent, both men admit admit that they’re here to do something they acknowledge is terrible, but that each insists is necessary, and probably best done alone. So they try to convince each other to leave, amid a cascade of double entendres, accusations, and mind games. [SPOILER ALERT – Ed.] An exchange of glimpses beneath the trenchcoats results in a hilarious moment of penis envy for the creator of the term.

Brian Crane and Christopher Herring, as Freud and Marx, respectively, give in to the playful inclinations of de la Parra’s work (translated by Charles Philip Thomas), and despite the elegantly stark set (consisting solely of that bench), and the heady subject matter, their interactions are more Abbot and Costello than Vladimir and Estragon. When they think they may have been spotted, they engage in elaborate, zany pantomimes in an effort to appear “normal.”

Sometimes de la Parra’s symbolism can be a little too on the nose; the fact that this pair of thinkers have been reduced to an activity this base is an effective metaphor for the marginalization of their theories that occurred through the 20th century, without them making specific reference to it. And the recontextualization of the material created by the twist ending speaks more specifically to the political context of 80s Chile than much of the rest of the play, making it the only part that feels slightly dated. Still, it plays nearly as well in 2010 as it must have in 1984, a playful and admiring send-up of irrepressible ideas.

See It If: The idea of an affronted Sigmund Freud screaming “Don’t you bring up my mother!” sounds potentially chuckle-worthy.

Skip It If: You think dick jokes are déclassé no matter what kind of intellectual context they’re given.