Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Describe the Night, now at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is a complex and fascinating work that, despite its title, defies description. Playwright Rajiv Joseph has taken as his theme the definition of truth and falsehood, how this distinction can be manipulated and what happens when it is, and director John Vreeke ably guides his seven actors through a labyrinth of language.
The playwright admits that he himself has played with the truth. His play depicts people known to have died long ago as still alive decades laterbut who knows if the reports of their death were true? They lived in Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, when people just disappeared when they became enemies of the state.
The action moves forward and backward in time, beginning with the Soviet-Polish War of 1920 and ending with a 2010 plane crash in Russia that killed most of the leaders of the Polish government. What they have in common is a handwritten notebook kept by Russian Jewish author Isaac Babel (Jonathan David Martin), who was a journalist during the war.
The audience sees the first interaction between Isaac and Soviet officer Nikolai Yezhov (Tim Getman); Isaac believes that truth is slippery and possibly unknowable, Nikolai says that "true is what happens, false is what didn't happen." Years later, Isaac visits Nikolai's home and meets his wife Yevgenia (Regina Aquino), whoas in the historical recordbecomes his lover.
But nothing happens in a straight line and even life and death are malleable in Joseph's telling. History shows that Isaac and Nikolai were both executed by Stalin's order and Yevgenia died in a mental institution, but that's not the story the audience sees.
In 2010, a journalist (Kate Eastwood Norris) who witnessed the plane crash begs for help from a car rental agent (Justin Weaks). She tells of receiving the notebook from a dying woman who had fallen from the crashed plane. In 1989, the now-elderly Nikolai has spent decades in a hidden part of the Kremlin, deciding what documents are true and what can be obliterated; he sends Vova (Danny Gavigan), an ambitious and self-aggrandizing KGB agent, to East Germany to find a young woman (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu) Nikolai believes to be his granddaughter. The young woman lives with her grandmother, the elderly Yevgenia, who serves Vova a soup made with live leechesas described decades earlier in one of Isaac's stories.
The whole effect is both immersive and dizzying as the viewer tries to navigate the many streams of Joseph's narrative. Vreeke conveys it all with equanimity, not taking sides, with impassioned performances from Martin, Getman, Aquino, and Akibu.
Misha Kachman's scenic design adds to the sense of disorientation: actors can be glimpsed just offstage as they await their entrances and a segment of the audience is seated on the stage behind the set. Roc Lee's sound design, all-encompassing industrial noise alternating with music by Dmitri Shostakovich, and Colin K. Bills' often surrealistic lighting also help keep the viewer off balance.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company