Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
David Esbjornson's world premiere production of Ariel Dorfman's "Purgatorio" is one of the darkest, bleakest, most despairing dramas to appear in some time. It's a cruel and relentless contest between a man and woman who hold each other's souls captive, and who are seemingly condemned to an eternal damnation of guilt and responsibility, captive both to each other and to their own inability to forgive. It asks, "What is the worst thing a woman can do to a man, and what is the worst thing a man can do to a woman, and under what conditions can there be redemption and forgiveness?" Brilliantly argued, the script has the sort of intelligence that is impossible to slight, and pursues an absolute morality that sustains intense conflict, searing emotion and riveting ideas. It recalls not only Dorfman's earlier "Death and the Maiden", but other existential classics like Sartre's "No Exit", Genet's "Deathwatch" and even the recently produced "Crave" by Sara Kane.
A man and a woman are in a place which is no place - perhaps an asylum, a prison, a state of mind - and they are entrapped by each other, by their terrible deeds and andless remorse. They seek forgiveness and release, but on terms that neither of them can fully comprehend, nor satisfy. The woman has murdered her children, as well as another woman that her husband would leave her for. The man is the interrogator, therapist, conscience, but then the scene changes and he is the inmate, patient, captive and she is the "official". Identity is affixed to acts, not persons. Nor is time fixed in any way, any more than place, any more than life and death, guilt and forgiveness; those are the real questions being explored here. "What can kill? What can heal? What can bring you back to life?" Because such issues constitute elemental power over others, they also have a political dimension, and Dorfman explores that, as well. He weaves-in issues of cultural domination and racism and the variety of ways in which social institutions have always oppressed the dis-empowered.
Scenic designer Nick Schwartz-Hall has imagined an all-white set: nearly translucent walls, white tile floor, off-white trim, accented byElizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes either in white or a pale gray, and illuminated with stark lighting by Scott Zielinski. It's a beautiful physical production, keeping all the emphasis on the human beings and their internal and interpersonal conflict. Subtle and effective audio gestures by sound designer Stephen LeGrand accent the key moments in a remarkable performance.
Charlayne Woodard is an extraordinary actress, and here she has a vast range of emotion to explore. Her ability to express anger and anguish, unbearable guilt and ferocious aggression, power and unfeeling control, torment and cruelty is astonishing. She uses every imaginable means of expression, from her varied and nuanced tones of voice to her amazingly expressive body, and in each instance her total commitment to the statement, her ability to make each word come from the totality of her physical being, is astonishing. Investment is necessary for any convincing performance, but what she achieves here is on another level entirely; it is the total integration of sound, gesture and emotional embodiment to give the play's text its own physicality, its own life. Dan Snook is also a very talented actor, and he also invests in a passionate and highly accomplished performance, but it's just not on the same level as Ms. Woodard. That is not to say it's unsuccessful, because he also takes us to great depths, bears the weight of large issues, and essays a great range of emotions, all accomplished with skill and authenticity.
This is an intellectual drama of enormous depth and sophistication, asking profound questions both ancient and immediate, melding such elements as the story of Medea with the Malincha (a Latin American legend of cultural betrayal) with current political, psychological and cultural imperialism. The two person cast, Charlayne Woodard and Dan Snook, is superb, and Esbjornson has perfect control over the pitch and pace of the drama, his balance between excruciating interpersonal conflict and excoriating, unflinching self-revelation is impeccable. Dorfman's balance of dramatic moral rigor and theatrical skill (knowing just when to break the tension to take a theatrical breath) saves us from being buried under his ponderous ideas, but never denies or releases us from their weight or ethical insistence. Certainly, this demanding and unyielding drama will not be to everyone's taste, and it requires great attention and investment from the audience. But it is also precisely the sort of intelligent, insightful and authoritative dramatic exposition, enacted with conviction and expertise, under deft and sensitive direction, that makes theatre important.