Totalitarian Trauma

A dark drama at IT takes on sex, lies and government-speak

Anna, an editor at the Soviet-style Ministry of Information, is not one to complain and certainly not to the Director.

But the man has summoned her and is now standing much too close.

And if you must know, this new project might just be the death of her. Anna and her comrades, black markers in hand, are working like the devil cleaning up the personal letters of Russia's most famous composer.

Seems the late composer was a boisterous homosexual who liked putting pen to paper. He documented his sexual adventures at length and with explicit glee.

"It's pornography," Anna tells the Director, who clearly has a dirty mind of his own. The grim-faced worker, played by Lori Hunt, explains that the filth removal is proceeding as planned. But it's dawning on her that the Director (Roberto Guajardo) didn't call her to his office for a status report.

Something else is going on. But what?

That's the question at the heart of The Letters, a tense two-character drama that opened Invisible Theatre's 43rd season last week.

John W. Lowell's play was inspired by a biography of Tchaikovsky, whose personal papers were reportedly censored by the Soviets. The government was hellbent on scrubbing the gay away.

The play, which earned its first major production in 2009, was also inspired by the overheated reaction to Bill Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky in the '90s.

The Letters takes place in 1931, which explains the portraits of Stalin and Lenin on the wall. But surely, you say, the drama has lost its relevance. The Russian leaders are cool with gay people now, right? Vladimir Putin said just the other day that Tchaikovsky is his favorite composer. And surely the current Democrat in the White House will never face impeachment from the wacko-birds in the House of Representatives.

OK, just kidding. In fact, Invisible Theatre may have picked the most perfect time ever to stage The Letters, a play about truth and what governments do with it. If there were a third character in Lowell's cat-and-mouse game, it would be Big Brother, a scary literary invention that got real in recent months.

The Letters opened at IT on the 12th anniversary of 9/11, and I took my seat after hours of watching the terrorist attacks play out once again on cable television. Steeped in paranoia and fear, The Letters seemed in keeping with the rest of the day.

As the Director and Anna circle each other in a duel of words, the secrets and lies and dubious intentions mount. The Letters keeps you guessing—so much so, in fact, that you might wish for more.

Performed without an intermission, the play is over and done with in 80 minutes, which makes it just slightly longer than an episode of Homeland. Compared to that Showtime cat-and-mouse drama, which returns Sept. 29th for a third season, The Letters is a slight chamber piece.

The play brings to mind another two-character drama about the power struggle between a man and a woman. The battle royale in David Mamet's sexual-harassment drama Oleanna was an expert tug of war. You sided with the man one minute, the woman the next.

Alas, there's not much of that going on in The Letters. Under the direction of Susan Claassen, the cast wrings plenty of tension from Lowell's story. Hunt and Guajardo perform admirably and easily compel our attention.

But I couldn't help but wonder why the Director, as played by Guajardo, was so obviously dangerous and creepy from the minute we meet him. Wouldn't it have been more exciting to feel yourself taken in at first by the Director's charisma? Maybe he should win us over to his side now and then.

Or should he? After the twists and turns are done, Guajardo's approach begins to add up. Perhaps the Director, like the recent mayor of San Diego, feels entitled to horrid over-the-top behavior. He invades personal space because he can. When you're the head tyrant in charge, what's charm got to do with it?

Hunt's performance is never more sympathetic than early on as Anna shivers and struggles to understand what's going on.

After several fruitless minutes trying to read the ruthless Director's intentions, she gathers the nerve to ask a direct question:

"Why am I here?"

The existential question hangs in the air.

But the audience is already smiling in anticipation of the answer: Our comrade Anna is here to turn the tables.

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