Monday, June 18, 2018
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Review: Jobsite's 'Closetland' is startling, but not much more

TAMPA — The most obvious thing to say about Closetland is that it's a powerful play. Whether it's an effective play, or even a worthwhile play, is not nearly so obvious.

Closetland, which playwright Radha Bharadwaj based on the film she scripted and directed, consists entirely of a young woman, dressed in nightclothes and underwear, being brutally interrogated, tortured psychologically and physically by a male functionary of an unnamed totalitarian country.

It's a gripping and uncomfortable thing to watch.

Unfortunately, that's all it is. Bharadwaj offers a depiction of totalitarianism and torture, but seems to think that's enough. There's no insight, no message other than "torture is bad." (And if anyone came to the theater thinking otherwise, his or her mind would probably remain unchanged.)

There's a bit of a plot twist toward the end, but it seems extraneous and almost silly. It doesn't tell us anything about the characters or the situation. It's as superficial as the rest of the play, and coming after an hour of unrelenting brutality such a mundane story point doesn't have much of a punch.

It's a shame, too, because the current production by Jobsite Theater at the Shimberg Playhouse has some undeniably strong elements.

Jobsite regulars David Jenkins and Katrina Stevenson play the unnamed torturer and victim, the only two characters in the play. It's probably safe to say that both have here taken on the most demanding and courageous roles of their careers and that they've stretched their talents quite effectively.

Stevenson is forceful throughout as the terrified but defiant victim. She's a writer of fiction for children, and the government had been watching her for a long time. They've searched her house and found an unpublished manuscript called "Closetland," about an abused girl who hides in a closet and invents a fantasy world populated by characters who inhabit the clothes hanging in that closet.

The government sees her manuscript as a disguised description of an actual subversive group and tries to get her to name her alleged colleagues.

Jenkins isn't as consistent, but he has a lot of very strong moments as the interrogator, with just the right touch of malice and menace. Brian Smallheer's set is appropriately oppressive, all gray with heavy chains and hooks hanging threateningly from the ceiling, though perhaps not claustrophobic enough, and his lighting design includes some chilling effects. Director Gavin Hawk's work is forceful and offers some memorable images.

But Bharadwaj's dialogue ranges from average to corny to downright cliched. ("You can break my mind but you can't break my spirit," becomes the woman's mantra.) Worse yet, she demonstrates a complete lack of ideas.

If we're supposed to see America's future in the dystopia of Closetland, that's only evidenced by the fact that both the interrogator and the victim dress in familiar clothes and speak with American accents. We don't see society outside, don't understand how that society deteriorated.

Closetland is startling, but that's all, and there's not much the Jobsite people could have done to make it otherwise. It's bereft of ideas and its emotional impact evaporates before you even get out of the theater door. You've watched an hour and a half of unpleasantness, and you have nothing to show for it.

Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts. He can be reached at [email protected]

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