The first thing that strikes one when entering the theatre proper is how perfect the staging is for Spooky Action Theater’s “New Guidelines for Peaceful Times.” With only about 42 seats completely surrounded by tall wooden slats signifying an immigration office on the docks in a city in Brazil, the set is the embodiment of intimacy for a very intimate play.
…a thoughtful show that is very quiet, but leaves you with much to think and talk about.
This is a duel between two men—Segismundo (Carlos Saldana) and Clausewitz (Michael Kevin Darnall). Clausewitz is an immigrant from Poland seeking a new life in Brazil; Segismundo is the immigration officer who is to give the final determination on his case. Clausewitz’s future literally hangs on a pen stroke of Segismundo. Both men have seen torture, death, persecution, dictatorship. Clausewitz, however, has the added distinction of having fled the Nazis. So he says—who really knows? Segismundo doesn’t believe that Clausewitz, an actor in his homeland, is in Brazil to become a farmer; as he notes, his hands have never held a shovel. He accuses Clausewitz of being a Nazi on the run; and tells him that to earn his penstroke on his safe-conduct papers, Clausewitz must convince him, Segismundo, that he is not. Further, he must tell him a story to make him cry.
A lot is packed into the hour this play takes. The challenge Segismundo sets Clausewitz takes us on a journey through truth vs. lies…do the arts matter…can theatre have an impact in preserving man’s better nature…how do you leave a world behind?
Carlos Saldana is quite convincing as Segismundo, who may have trusted the wrong man and may not live out the day. There is a bitter satisfaction when he enumerates some of Brazil’s sins to the wide-eyed and nay-saying Clausewitz; but then Clausewitz might be so good an actor that he can make himself cry. One is left wondering at the amount of trust it takes just to get through a day in anyone’s life, and here the stakes are higher—let a possible Nazi escape or let a man fleeing the rubble of Europe find hope.
Both men are suitably restrained in their roles. As Clausewitz, Darnall embodies the immigrant who has literally only what he is wearing and is trying to pick up clues from his questioner that will give him the best chance of a yes answer. From awkwardly trying to establish a bond to the non-threatening, comma-shaped set of his shoulders, Darnall is any immigrant in any era searching for some safety and a chance.
Segismundo, from the first cryptic phone call, before Clausewitz enters the office to his damning confession, is a hard man. He measures and challenges Clausewitz and issues this absurd challenge. His portrayal is all the more affecting because you don’t sense it’s the meaningless bullying of a minor official, but a man desperate to feel something, but he can’t articulate that. In his shadow world (he used to be an intelligence officer) he doesn’t have the luxury of appearing to want or need something. It’s an incisive portrait by Saldana.
As stated, the set is really wonderful, although for older patrons, some sort of handrail might help. The set pieces and the costumes have the requisite air of shabbiness that one would expect from a bureaucrat consigned to the docks, and an immigrant who has nothing but his “hands for farming” in Brazil.
The author, Bosco Brasil, was inspired by three historical forces to compose this distillation of the immigrant experience: the 1940s in Brazil, the arrival of a Polish actor/director/refugee from the Nazis who helped to revitalize Brazilian theatre, and the rescue of Paulo Ronal, who was the only Portuguese-Hungarian interpreter in a Nazi concentration camp. These forces combine in a play that is short but full of depth.
Directed by Roberta Alves, this is a thoughtful show that is very quiet but leaves you with much to think and talk about. And in a time in American politics when immigration is again such a flashpoint, and there is such desperate need in the world, the questions it poses are real. So yes, theatre does impact the real world.
Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes with no intermission.
“New Guidelines for Peaceful Times” runs from October 11 – 28, 2018, at Spooky Action Theater, Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20009. For more information, please click here.