Closet Land

by John Stoltenberg

When we are ushered into the tiny dimly lit theater, constructed as a claustrophobic black box with only two rows of chairs on all sides, we enter a nightmare more harrowing and disquieting than any conjured by Kafka. We see there a lone woman sitting in a chair—bound, gagged, blindfolded and wearing a flimsy white nightdress. Her vulnerability is palpable—and we have not yet met the nameless man who will interrogate and assault her,  excruciatingly, before our eyes and nearly within arm’s reach. We are present in a wince-in-place space where no esthetic distance exists.

Closet Land began as a 1991 film directed by Rahda Bharadwaj from her  original screenplay. Bharadwaj has explained why she conceived it as a film not a stageplay:

Because film is better equipped to take the audience directly into intense emotional states—be they of pain, or of joy.  Closet Land, which indeed deals with torture and physical abuse, deals with pain. And my film, despite being about torture, also deals with the exhilaration of freedom and the power of human imagination….

After the film came out, Bharadwaj adapted her screenplay for the stage, a  version that has since been widely performed. While Bharadwaj acknowledges that the words in the stage version “have a lyrical force and sway,” she makes clear her preference for “the film experience,” which, she says, is “vastly different: hugely emotional and personal, with [the woman’s] pain and [the man’s] madness intimately felt.”

Should Bharadwaj see the stage version now playing  at Anacostia Arts Center, she might wish to revise that viewpoint. Because Factory 449’s production of Closet Land is more intense and more illuminating than the movie by at least a factor of 10. I say that having watched the film right after the play. The two forms follow approximately the same script and tell approximately the same story, yet they yield profoundly different significations. And I found Factory 449’s rendering to be by far the more cogent and compelling.

Director Rick Hammerly and Actors Sara Barker and David Lamont Wilson tell a hellish story and don’t hold back. A politically naive children’s-book author (Barker) has been detained by some unspecified government and is interrogated by a smooth-operator sadist-for-the-state (Wilson), who accuses her of having written books that subliminally indoctrinate impressionable youth.

“You can do anything with children if only you play with them,” he says arrogantly, quoting Prince Otto van Bismarck. And if that sounds like foreshadowing of child sexual abuse, it is. In the dark recesses of the play’s back story is the woman’s  tormenting memory as a five-year-old seeking refuge in a closet when a man, a friend of her mother’s, came by to visit weekly—and he would find her in that closet and regularly sexually molest her.  A story she has written called “Closet Land,” a thinly veiled evocation of that childhood trauma, has been seized by this ominously anonymous state and has precipitated the terrifying interrogation. Moreover the interrogator himself uses methods of torture that are graphically sexual, and at one point he and the molester merge into one.

The film foregrounds the theme of state torture; there’s an onscreen quote from Amnesty International at the end. Bharadwaj’s film shrewdly overlays political abuse and sexual abuse—or what Kate Millett calls “male domination and domination by the state” in her chapter about the film in her book The Politics of Cruelty. Millett observes the important sexual political metaphor in this melding, as state political torture feminizes and infantilizes its victims:

Under torture one is first reduced to a woman, then to a child, and as the torturer creates a woman out of any human material being tortured, he also creates a child, the citizen as child, frightened before the great, all-powerful, adult sadism of the state.

While Millett’s reading of the film Closet Land as an allegory about the sexual politics of state torture makes fascinating sense, there remains a lot about the film that seems more tangential than probative. For instance the entire specific childhood sex-abuse narrative: Why is it even there? The interrogation taking place in the present amply dramatizes the sexual politics of state torture; the molestation back story doesn’t add much. The brilliant interpretation now on view in the Factory 449 staging shifts the work’s focus, however, away from the capital P Political to the lower-case personal—foregrounding what the woman’s history of sexual abuse means to her—with dramatically revelatory results.

Because we sit so close in this black chamber—because we are so proximate to each invasion and derogation of the body of the character Barker portrays (sometimes with more verisimilitude than we can stand to watch), because Wilson’s portrayal of the suave cruelty of his character is so stark (and sometimes shocks the shit out of us)—we experience the nightmare viscerally ourselves. It’s not up on a screen that we can sit back from. We are in it.

What’s extraordinary is that by the end of the play we understand—as we don’t and can’t from the movie—exactly who is having this nightmare and why. We recognize that a woman, an accomplished creative writer, has been haunted and traumatized by her experience of sexual molestation; she has kept reliving it, reiterating it; she has been struggling with it all her life. But on this night—this horrific and auspicious night, here in this tiny space with only us few audience members as  witness—she is refiguring that molestation not as something personal, not as her fault, but as an instance of political torture in a social system of male sexual domination. Her purpose, using only the power of her intellect and imagination, is to name it, to resist it, to dissent from it, to conquer it.  She is literally now reauthoring the story in order to reclaim herself and the integrity of her body and mind. And the real suspense of the play becomes: Will she succeed?

Not only is Factory 449’s Closet Land a don’t-miss encounter with two exquisite performances in a stunning production. It is a revelation of liberatory meaning.

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