The (really) final exam | Byron Woods | Indy Week
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The (really) final exam 

Dorfman presents Purgatorio

Playwright Ariel Dorfman is certain of it: Purgatorio, his new work premiering this weekend at Duke, is the intellectual and emotional sequel to Death and the Maiden, the 1992 Broadway psychological drama that remains his best-known work.

But consider the title for a moment. Since it's a subtle thing, there's no telling in advance how many audience members will pick up on it before this weekend's workshop production in Reynolds Theater. But when you stop to think about it, why is an atheist writing a Purgatorio, of all things: an account of life--as it were--in a transitional place preceding Heaven or Hell?

We asked the playwright the question--and several others--when we interviewed him last week.

Ariel Dorfman: I've always thought that everybody needs to be redeemed in some way, that everybody has some form of redemption inside them. This is an insanely optimistic Ariel speaking to you, but that's what I've always felt. Everyone is in need of it: the best of us, the saints are the ones who most strive for it in some way. They think they need it. A Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, a Buddha--they're going for redemption, all of them.

I was brought up in Chile, this agnostic child of Jewish heritage, without being religious in the slightest. I would drive my Catholic friends crazy by saying to them, "So you're going to Heaven and I'm going to Hell, right? How are you going to feel if I'm in Hell and you're in Heaven? How can you possibly be in Heaven if your dear friend is suffering in Hell?"

I am proud to say that half of them ceased to be Catholic, eventually... .

The Independent: That was your early missionary work, evidently... .

My missionary work is to disturb people. What I mean is that I think we're so tied together that either you redeem everybody or you redeem nobody. Since I was 12 or 13, I've wondered if there was an afterlife, what do you do to get people redeemed?

In Death and the Maiden, there was a person who was definitely a victim, even if she takes the position of power while the play is happening. I was interested in exploring, in pushing this a bit further. What if the person who can free you is the person you have most damaged on Earth?

You're suggesting that that is our condition.

Yes. There are many evils, but I was most interested in working at the familial level. If violence exists and terrible things are done, they're not only done in the fields of war, in dungeons and factories. They're done at the table, in the bed or the garden. Instead of focusing on 18,000 or an army of 150,000, it's very good to focus on he and she. Otherwise it's very abstract: "How do we stop war? We work for peace." What does that mean?

I looked for a couple that had damaged itself more than any other couple we can imagine, through the most extreme act. What is the worst thing a woman can do to a man? What is the worst thing a man can do to a woman?

I wanted a place where they cannot hide and they cannot escape. So I put them in a situation where they're going to have to work it out. Or they're going to stay there.

Of course I'm not really suggesting that the way to work it out is to do so in the Great Beyond. I want people to work it out here.

What the two are damned to, or condemned to, is themselves. Sartre said, "Hell is other people." I rather think that the other person can be Purgatory as well.

This is a fascinating afterlife you have for us here. It's one that resonates both with the circumstance of Death and the Maiden and the brutality it protested. When we meet this man and woman, both are under surveillance, being held against their will. People who aren't identified are extensively interrogating them.

Perhaps because this is an Ariel Dorfman play, we're so suspicious of the people asking the questions. First we don't trust them, then we do. A patina of therapy is introduced into the conversation. Then that patina is breached, on more than one occasion. Our attention gets drawn back to all the possible agendas here.

But for a place where sacred work is allegedly happening, there are a lot of lies being told, and misrepresentations--by the ones asking the questions.

The question of how you get the truth out of somebody, with what tricks you get the truth, is very relevant to our world today. I'm always interested in the idea that very often in order to tell the truth you have to tell a lie. Jean Cocteau said, "I am a liar who tells the truth." Supposedly for someone so interested in human rights, I'm also extremely interested in that we deal with illusions all of the time. Language is very tricky, and we live mired in ambiguity.

In one sense I'm very interested in finding the moral ground from which the identity of these characters can be built. But at the same time, I'm aware that they are under pressure to lie, to each other and to themselves.

I've always been interested in situations where one person has more power than the other. At the same time that has been my constant obsession, I'm also incessantly looking at the innate dignity of the person being interrogated, being caught, being lied to.

In this case, one character has total power--presumably. But there are certain things that person cannot do. There is a certain amount of free will on the part of the "patient," if we want to call them that--or the graduate, the penitent, or the purgant.

That person has to decide on his or her own what to do with the liberty they have.

The ending is ambiguous. We can see the couple as each other's jailers, in perpetuity, like Sartre's No Exit. It's also possible to read a liberating awareness into the close, as in Camus' Myth of Sisyphus. The pair may--or may not--be closer to release from Purgatory.

But something happens at the end--let's call it a recognition. For me, it's the most important moment in the play. What does it mean? Though we've been in this situation who knows how many times--something different has just happened. What effect will that have on the future? I don't know. The audience has got the answer, I suppose.

The play is not going to solve these questions. Hopefully, it's going to put them in such a way that we will be challenged by them. I want people to be disturbed, to be entertained--to see themselves in the story--and to go back home trying to figure out what they've learned.

The questions on the ultimate final examination will be revealed when David Esbjornson directs Broadway's Tom Hewitt and Priscilla Lopez, Friday through Sunday, in Reynolds Theater.

This just in, as we go to press: Manbites Dog Theater is holding over its smash revival of Nixon's Nixon one additional weekend. When icy weather forced the cancellation of Saturday night's show, company officials scrambled to add two additional shows, this Friday and Saturday. That's all: The engagement must close this weekend. If you haven't seen it yet, make your reservations now.

Congratulate playwright Jerry Sipp the next time you see him--preferably while in Sanford soon to catch his sparkling new romantic comedy, Falling in Like. Yes, that's playwright Jerry Sipp--who also acts. And directs. And manages Temple Theatre.

Folks, claws were being sharpened across the Triangle for this one.

Why? Too frequently, when a director stages his own script--in his own house--it's mainly because no one else would touch it with a 10-foot pole. There's a good reason why different people handle play writing, literary management and direction: It minimizes the group's aesthetic blind spot, and double-checks each one's artistic judgment.

When one person does all three, the safety's off. Anything can happen.

Which is why I'm relieved--and delighted--to note that Sipp's play, if anything, is even stronger than the current Temple Theatre production. Which is saying something, considering the strong cast here assembled.

Consider Lynda Clark as the template, vampy showbiz barracuda, or Nan Stephenson, memorably profane--and totally funny--as the world-weary stage manager who's seen it all. Meanwhile, everyone keeps "improving" the script of J. Chachula's neurotic playwright.

And those are only the supporting roles, friends. While the leads are strangers to the region, rest assured: They belong with the company above. It's been at least 10 years since I caught Fred Nash's act in Greensboro. Here he's perfect as the enigmatic Frank, a consummate professional on stage--and a total iceman when off. In this variation on the usual line, Frank's the obscure object of desire of all females assembled, and most notably Abbie the theater intern.

In this backstage comedy, of course the moment Clark's character pops a kneecap, the director, playwright and stage manger start circling Abbie like sharks around chum. Voila: intern becomes ingenue--and tries to get to know her leading man. Frustration--and laughs--ensue. Morgan Grace Jarrett is appropriately unsinkable as the girl who won't take no for an answer.

After a lifetime in the theater, Sipp clearly knows--and loves--his subjects. Their dialogue fairly crackles with wit and theatrical in-jokes. Just as clever are the ways Frank tries to throw Abbie off the track.

All of which makes this show a must-see for theater people--and a delight for the rest of us. Sipp must be considering an agent to submit this work for national competitions and publication: It's ready.

The rest of us have two weeks to catch its world premiere at Temple.

****1/2 Nixon's Nixon, Manbites Dog Theater--The darting eyes beneath the famous furrowed brow and that uniquely baleful smile serve notice: The hungry ghost of Richard Nixon walks among us again in this revival of last fall's smash hit. Though Derrick Ivey (as Nixon) and Carl Martin (as Henry Kissinger) have made a number of discoveries since then, Ivey's performance the night we revisited Nixon had dialed down, just a bit, the desperation and voracity that made his initial work so astounding. Last fall we never forgot that it was always Resignation Eve, there were always two agendas--and very little time to forge a deal.

But if Nixon's edge had marginally dulled when we saw it, Martin's Kissinger had considerably sharpened, cunningly manipulating inebriated strolls down memory lane with Brezhnev, Golda Meir and Mao.

Throughout Russell Lees' rueful, dark, historical comedy, Nixon prowls the stage in search of an exit strategy. As he plays card after card to compel Kissinger to save his presidency, the pair explore the extremes to which the powerful will go to maintain power. A scenario beyond mere brinksmanship makes them drunken, laughable schoolboys--except that a red telephone waits somewhere for them to decide the fate of the world.

The late-found conscience Lees gives Nixon still seems largely hypothetical. Still, this production makes us nostalgic for a time when clearly defined limits on ambition and power were enforced not only by judicial and legislative failsafes, but by the will of the people. The differences between that time and this only sharpen the wicked edges here. (HELD OVER: Friday-Saturday, Feb. 4-5. $15. 682-4974.)

**** Copenhagen, Playmakers Rep--Even if Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning script dramatizes the interior science of early nuclear physics, all would be for naught if this historical drama didn't keep us intrigued, from start to finish, with the enigma at its center: the radically different interpretations three people gave the same conversation--a brief exchange between Werner Heisenberg and mentor Niels Bohr in the titled town, one September afternoon in 1941--and how those differing interpretations changed history.

For the pair did speak, privately, for less than 10 minutes, when Heisenberg (Nobel laureate, creator of quantum mechanics--and head of the German atomic energy program under the Nazis) visited Bohr, at great personal risk, in occupied Denmark. After their talk, a visibly agitated Bohr ushered Heisenberg from his home.

In subsequent years, the men never agreed on what exactly happened when they spoke.

Frayn's compelling hypothesis: the world's fate hung equally on what both said, and what each believed they heard the other saying. What's worse: Bohr and Heisenberg both misinterpreted at least one crucial point the other was trying to make.

You can nearly feel the world tilt with the shifting points of view. All is explained when Heisenberg gives the relived conversation a completely coherent explanation--until we see just how differently Bohr hears those same words. Then things shift again, as the conversation is relived from the vantage point of Bohr's wife, Margrethe.

By the end, we've seen three sides of a secret--and are left to deal with the very complicated truth.

Todd Weeks' Heisenberg has the crisp, chilly air of one whose dealings with the world have forced a retreat into the large, cool room of the intellect. As Niels Bohr and Margrethe, Greg Thornton and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini are considerably warmer, but still divided at points by individual perspective and loss. All three vividly animate the intellectual--and ethical--riddle at Copenhagen's center. (Tuesday-Sunday, through Feb. 13. $32-$10. 962-PLAY.)

Byron Woods can be reached at

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