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BWW REVIEW: Dirt [Contained] Explores the Pain of Freedom in Fernando Arrabal's GARDEN OF DELIGHTS

BWW REVIEW: Dirt [Contained] Explores the Pain of Freedom in Fernando Arrabal's GARDEN OF DELIGHTS
Olivier Renaud, Tana Sirois (Courtesy of the Production)

Early in Dirt [Contained]'s production of GARDEN OF DELIGHTS, a caller on a radio show asks Lais (Tana Sirois), the successful but tormented actress at the center of Fernando Arrabal's 1960s play, if she was was really an orphan. When Lais responds in the affirmative, the caller expresses sympathy for her presumed suffering.

Lais corrects the caller: "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but my parents became a marvelous dream. I have always felt sad and sorry for all those who have to endure the dull reality of their real parents, most of whom are banal and boring. But I was free to imagine mine as being strange and fascinating. I could be the bastard daughter of Einstein, or the child of Neptune and a Roman slave, a creature coming alive from the imaginings of a mad genius of a poet [emphasis mine]."

Lais' response provides the audience what it needs to appreciate (if not exactly to enjoy) what follows, even if Andre Breton, Antonin Artaud, the Theatre of Cruelty, the Panic Movement, and surrealism in general are literary terra incognito (as they were to me, a former English doctoral candidate specializing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). But a little knowledge helps one to appreciate just how ambitious and complex a project this is. (I'm told Ferdando Arrabal, now in his 80s, made a special trip to America to see Dirt [Contained] perform his play. Having seen this extraordinary cast, led by the at once nymph-like and ferocious Tana Sirois, I can see why.)

It may be my bias as a former academic, but the more one brings to GARDEN OF DELIGHTS, the more one gets out of it. My reading of and about Arrabal since the show has retroactively increased my respect for and pleasure in the play. Nathan Gorelick's characterization of Arrabal's work in the journal Discourse is apt: "[His] theater is a wild, brutal, cacophonous and joyously provocative world. In his violence, Arrabal is related to Sade and Artaud. Yet he is doubtless the only writer to have pushed derision as far as he did. Deeply political and merrily playful, his work is the syndrome of our century of barbed wire and Gulags, a manner of finding reprieve."

This is the sense in which the show "delights and punishes the audience," but the promotional materials don't make that clear. Also, the show is billed as "interactive," but it's really not, at least not by current standards of immersive theater. (This is not a Cynthia Von Buhler or Siobhan O'Loughlin show, in other words.)

The Dominatrix who welcomes us to the massive Plaxhall Gallery explains that the actors do move among audience members, who can choose a seat closer or further from the action. Plaxhall is the 8000 square foot home to the Long Island City Artists collective, whose current exhibition is presented in conjunction with the show. It's good to arrive early because the art sets the mood. We are told not to put anything on the tables. Act I and Act II take place in different parts of the gallery and one need to shift one's chair to see the clips from historical footage, cartoons, and film on the walls. Once or twice we are told to stand up (and blow bubbles or use the noisemaker provided in a gift bag).

But the actors don't deviate from the script and the audience does not participate in any way that alters the outcome. GARDEN OF DELIGHTS is more interactive, obviously, than a traditional play in which audience members remain fixed in their seat as actors perform onstage, but given the current popularity of immersive theater, the website should have been clearer.

Raised by sadist nuns who frequently beat her, lock her in a cell, and tell her she's hideous and damned to hell, Lais not only seeks refuge in her imagination; she convinces herself that the freedom to imagine--and thus to create--an identity for herself makes her freer than if she were raised in a safer, healthier environment which did not compel her to escape reality in the first place.

This is a radical claim. Imagination isn't simply a "coping mechanism"; it is, rather, constitutive of identity. Imagining is a perpetual action ("coming alive"). Lais imagines, therefore she is, in Arrabal's version of the Cartesian cogito. Through Lais' struggles, the play (which consists of 23 scenes over two acts) becomes an extended philosophical inquiry into freedom: its possibility, its limitations, and its frequent collapse. The cacophony and chaos of GARDEN OF DELIGHTS, however, hardly bears out Lais' optimism (or theory of becoming).

BWW REVIEW: Dirt [Contained] Explores the Pain of Freedom in Fernando Arrabal's GARDEN OF DELIGHTS
Tana Sirois (Courtesy of the Production)

It is in the context of freedom, or more accurately, its elusiveness, that one must understand the sadomasochism of GARDEN OF DELIGHTS. This is not a mid-20th-century 50 Shades of Grey. In contemporary notions of power exchange, BDSM lies mainly beyond the sphere of daily life. It's relegated to consciously undertaken "scenes." (A Master/slave relation carries the power exchange outside the bedroom, but that's far less common.) Think Billions: Chuck Rhoades, the U.S. Attorney of New York's Southern District (Paul Giamatti) wants his psychiatrist wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), to inflict sexual pain and humiliation on him because once in a while, he needs someone else to call the shots. And while Arrabal was influenced by the Marquis de Sade, the fundamental confusion of pain with pleasure is mostly abstract and bound up (pun intended) with the constant and disturbing clash between reality and fantasy. This, one might say, is an epistemological pain felt not only by the characters but by the audience.

The men in Lais' life do not beat or torture her. That's the province of the nuns, to whom she refers always as "sisters." One needn't be a psychoanalyst to connect her intense need for pain with the Catholic Church, which emerges as monolithically evil and the very antithesis of life. As a child, she frequently donned a hairshirt and punctured her thigh with a crown of thorns to feel closer to God. Her account of the spurting blood is chilling yet innocent. It's no accident, then, that the most terrifying scene in the play involves an inquisition. A hooded, anonymous figure tries her for blasphemy while she's chained to a chair.

BWW REVIEW: Dirt [Contained] Explores the Pain of Freedom in Fernando Arrabal's GARDEN OF DELIGHTS
Tana Sirois, Olivier Renaud (Courtesy of the Production)

Lais first meets Teloc, a whimsical, literate, and highly sexual creature of the woods when she sneaks out of the convent. Played by the dazzling Cirque du Soleil veteran Olivier Renaud (who later studied the Meisner technique and speaks four languages), Teloc projects supernatural charisma. Fellow convent dweller/prisoner Miharca (played with appropriate mania by director Maria Swisher, who founded Dirt [Contained] with Sirois) can't even see him, and she's quite cross that she risked punishment in order to meet a phantasm.

The minute Lais departs, Teloc appears as if by magic. Sequestered as she is, any man would likely captivate her. But Teloc is an Adonis with an irreverent, playful spirit. He insists that she can be as free as the fields, mountains, and birds. He nudges her toward self-acceptance by asking her to gaze upon her own legs (she had been taught to bathe without doing so). This is a lost cause, of course, because the nuns have psychologically maimed Lais; her self-hatred is epic, medieval even.

Teloc encourages Lais to become an actress. When she asks him to tie her to a tree and torture her, he suggests they play football instead. He also coaxes her to sing her "favorite tune," Schubert's "Ave Maria," which he will accompany by farting. (Siriois sings beautifully and moves with the grace of a professional ballerina, so the effect is nothing short of ethereal). In subsequent encounters, he gives her a time-traveling helmet: visions of war and pop culture project on the walls of Plaxhall Gallery like a strobe light.

The adult Lais keeps a half-beast named Zenon (Adam Giannone) in a cage. His speech is primitive. She insults and screams at him. Other times, she behaves tenderly toward him, as though he were a cherished child. Mostly she regards Zenon as a cross to bear, preferring the company of her beloved sheep (of whom Zenon is jealous). As one might guess, things do not end well for the sheep.

Act II is too long. Miharca reappears as Teloc's companion. Without having read the play beforehand, the last twenty or so minutes are a tough slog. We are weary from the intensity (and Miharca's insanity is trying). That's no doubt deliberate but absent foreknowledge (not just of the plot but of Arrabal's intent), it's hard to stay engaged. But the first three-quarters of play is so compelling, we forgive GARDEN OF DELIGHTS for the the flaws of its final stretch. Theater of Cruelty is demanding (as the title suggests), but this is a profoundly rewarding production.

Tickets for the August 12 and 13 shows at Plaxhall Gallery (5-26 46 Avenue, Long Island City) at

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From This Author Victoria Ordin