This is an ambitious, involved show that uses the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk that killed 96 people, including Poland’s president as a linchpin. Starting in 1920 with the chance meeting of (real-life) Russian writer Isaac Babel and the future head of the NKVD (from 1936 to 1938, the most active period of the Great Purge), Soviet officer Nikolai Yezhov, the story proceeds through three generations. It isn’t exactly a friendship that the two men strike, but there is a connection. And this connection is what unites the different streams of consciousness for the 90 years that the play covers.
This is a dangerous play of dangerous questions…
This play places historical people into imagined situations, and then blends real situations with the characters, some of whom have died (e.g., Yevgenia as an old woman), all the while skipping merrily back and forth in time from 1920 to 2010. The easiest way to visualize this is that the characters from 1920 to the 1940s are real, and after that, it’s more fluid. This is a play that asks that you suspend your need for a linear story and be willing to accept magic realism.
But ultimately, the characters are secondary; “Describe the Night” is a study in how truth and lies are twisted and deformed, and the lengths authoritarian regimes will go to 1) produce, 2) disseminate, 3) protect a truth that consolidates their hold on power. The characters are basically conduits for a lesson in the ultimate spin—execution and writing someone out of history. In the days before photoshop, this took some real effort, and one of the characters, Nikolai Yezhov, was basically removed from Soviet history, photographs, records, files; he became known as the “Vanishing Commissar.” However, unlike Babel, who was also purged and executed but eventually half-heartedly “rehabilitated,” Yezhov was never brought back in memory.
And what is the price that societies pay when truths are eradicated? Since humankind began keeping records, what are the dangers to a status quo, particularly when controlling a population, if some fragment of a truth is found, and someone’s imagination is lit up to go and find out more? Just how dangerous is that?
All these questions the play raises, and in some form mostly answers.
As Isaac Babel and Nikolai Yezhov, Jonathan David Martin and Tim Getman have real chemistry together. Martin is as nimble with his words and delivery as he is on his feet; although only a few inches taller, Getman somehow manages to simply loom over Babel. Even when having a (relatively) friendly exchange, there is an undercurrent of violence emanating from Getman.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Justin Weaks as Feliks (he makes a solid impression in the first act then sadly disappears for two hours until the last 10 minutes or so); Kate Eastwood Norris as Mayiya, a Polish journalist that escaped the round-up of journalists in Smolensk, Russia, where the Polish plane crashed; Regina Aquino as Yevgenia, wife of Nikolai and lover of Babel; Danny Gavigan as Voval (he is only in the last scenes, playing, dare we imply it, a frighteningly silky Putin as an up-and-coming KGB officer); and Moriamo Temidayo Akibu as Urzula, granddaughter of Babel.
The staging is intriguing but sometimes doesn’t offer enough privacy for the actors. The stage bisects a seating area Woolly has placed at the back of the stage, and there are two large metal walkways with rooms standing guard at either end. It was a bit awkward when a character needed to age or grow younger and the crew simply appeared and handed them a robe and wig or some such. Clearly, the actors had practiced donning changes without the aid of a mirror, but it felt like such a private moment to spy on. And it seemed to jar one out of the moment; this is not a play that one ever loses awareness that it is a play. That is not a critique but seems to fit more with the somewhat scattered, removed approach to the question-asking.
This is a dangerous play of dangerous questions and few hopeful answers. At the end, I was left wondering, what IS the point of our existence—all these resources, all this time and effort, all the lives wasted in pursuit of some power, and you’re going to die anyway, and what has been left to the next generation to build on? What kind of mad game are we wasting all this time on, anyway? And would humanity have the courage to change? Given the possible future humanity is hurtling toward, these are very timely questions, but who dares to answer?
Show Advisory: Cigarette smoking; some theatrical haze; gunshots.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Show Information: ‘Describe the Night’ runs through June 23, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.