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Theater Review:

"THE ARCHITECT AND THE EMPEROR OF ASSYRIA" at Trap Door Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Few people would disagree that Fernando Arrabal’s 1965 "The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria," a brutal theatrical parable warning against the perils of absolute power, is a confounding play. An absurdist inversion of Shakespeare’s "The Tempest," with no sympathy for Prospero figures of any kind, it pits two men – the titular "savage" desert-island inhabitant and faux "civilized" ruler who falls from the sky – against each other in a treacherous, yet oddly tender, game of co-dependent role playing.

Director Beata Pilch’s piercingly ironic staging at Trap Door Theatre creates fascinating visual tiers of deception in a playing area designed by David Moquay with a combined tacky-plastic tropical vacation aura and distressed, uninhabited hell hole of Sartrean proportions. Pilch’s and Imma Curl’s shabby, moth-eaten costumes – from fur stoles to garter belts – place a disturbing stain of desperation on a play illustrating, with cackling candor, the cyclical and futile power struggles of nations eternally determined to conquer and build their own "advanced" civilizations (hence the dichotomy of emperor and architect).

Arrabal, a contemporary writer born in Spanish Morocco, has been living as a voluntary exile in Paris since 1955. His father was imprisoned by Franco and sentenced to death, but managed to escape in 1941. He allegedly disappeared, and Arrabal was raised by his staunchly Catholic mother. A controversial writer, Arrabal is no stranger to political injustice.

"The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria" – despite its obscure and, at times, incomprehensible structure – faithfully mirrors the elusive and indefinable world conflicts in which we are engaged today. An opening video segment featuring a flight attendant giving sardonic safety instruction goes on a bit long but gives this production a wry immediacy.

The play manages to topple every major institution – mainly church, government and family – through an outlandish game of dress up.

Pilch has chosen two corrosive actors who really sink their teeth into Arrabal’s pointedly schizophrenic script. Tom Bateman’s fresh-faced, clean-cut and reasonable Architect (or initial savage) perfectly balances the hairy and imposing – but ultimately powerless – Wesley Walker’s Emperor (or man of learning). They never sensationalize their seemingly erratic characters. By the end, we feel as if they loved each other, but their desire to control undoes any possibility for harmony.

The playwright, however, does not take a stance as simplistic as glorifying the noble savage and castigating the vicious colonialist. As he consistently enlightens and shifts loyalties – for instance, the Emperor moves from murderous demon to bawling baby with the snap of a finger – Arrabal makes us question if such well-intentioned reversals hold true.

In fact, even as the Architect dons a suit and the Emperor regresses to a loin cloth, the so-called civilized Architect graphically yet metaphorically devours the pompous intruder. In light of current world issues, one could very well say we are all moving backward into the Stone Age. Yet whenever Arrabal presents us with something resembling a kernel of truth, it disappears in a poof of hideously contorted ideological babble.

What makes this hellish charade so horrifying is that both men eventually become interchangeable. One morphs into the other – no matter how many costumes they don -- underscoring one’s capacity for the vilest acts of self-preservation in the guise of humankind’s well being (which usually leads to self-destruction).

This paradoxical parable can be tedious to endure, especially since the characters speak in wildly shifting riddles. But Arrabal need not provide us with a linear description of human folly. That would be too simple and too easy to dismiss. There are no good guys or bad guys; we all stand accused of apathy and personal hide-saving.

Listen carefully and realize the skill with which the writer topples the hypocrisies of various movements and ideologies. He asks such pertinent questions as "Did God go crazy before or after creation?" and "What does happy mean?" and a war segment in which the Emperor asks, ""So is this how you fight for a better world?" and, as the Emperor achingly laments, "How can I atone for humanity all by itself?" More than an anti-dictator play, "The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria" reexamines the very structure of civilization and finds it lacking in the most basic, well, civilities.

Arrabal makes a gruelingly forthright case for some culture’s belief that life is a dream – or a nightmare -- from which we awaken when life comes to an end.•

"The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria" has been extended through June 15 at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland. Tickets: $15. Call 773-384-0494 or log onto www.trapdoortheatre.com.
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