Arts » Theater

Mask of Tyranny

Totalitarian governance is explored with style in Bad Epitaph's State of Siege.


Camus's anti-fascist allegory, written 55 years ago, is - as modern as today's headlines.
  • Camus's anti-fascist allegory, written 55 years ago, is as modern as today's headlines.

Imagine if the police busted down your door this evening and hauled you away to an undisclosed cell, while never charging you with a crime and without giving you access to an attorney or legal proceedings. After all those hours watching NYPD Blue and Law & Order, you'd think they were breaking the law -- but you'd be wrong. Thanks to the Patriot Act, passed without Congressional debate (!) after 9-11, the government has that right, if it feels you are aiding and abetting terrorist activity. Do the authorities need proof of your wrongdoing? Well, no. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proclaimed, speaking of Iraq's to-date invisible arsenal of mass-destruction weaponry, "The absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence." Translation to the home front: Just because there's no proof of your guilt doesn't mean you're not guilty.

Welcome to 21st-century U.S.A., where our leaders have taken the rational fear planted by the attack on the World Trade Center and nurtured it into irrational assaults on civil liberties and the concept of privacy. Writer and philosopher Albert Camus saw a lot of this coming when he wrote State of Siege in 1948. And that's why this splendid production of his anti-fascist screed by the revivified Bad Epitaph Theater Company is the most timely of theatrical offerings. Siege tells the allegorical tale of Cadiz, a province in Spain that is ruled by an ineffective and uninvolved governor (go ahead, picture Bob Taft). Soon a smooth-talking, business-suited fellow named The Plague and his sleek, dress-for-success Secretary (Mindy Childress) hit town, begin offing some of the locals, and demand to be given total control of the region lest the killings continue.

This is when Camus's 50-year-old script begins to sound as fresh as today's New York Times op-ed page. To control the populace, The Plague instills fear and institutes confusing edicts, explaining, "The less these people understand, the better they'll behave." Food is doled out only to the obedient, strict curfews limit citizen gatherings, and words are condemned as carriers of infection, so that the masses are encouraged to learn the art of silence. Irony and emotion are jettisoned in favor of rigid organization and "orderly dying." When any of the poor, lame, or halt step an inch out of line, the Secretary drops them with a fatal flick of her Bic. (Hey, it's more mercifully efficient than suffocating them slowly through aid-destroying, predatory tax cuts.)

In one of his most pointed satirical thrusts, Camus turns the loudmouthed town drunk, Nada, into a rubber-stamp-crazed bureaucrat, handing out baffling Certificates of Existence and badges of support for the new regime (those who refuse to wear this badge must wear another badge, indicating they are the people who wouldn't wear the first badge). Ultimately, apathy and hopelessness reign supreme, and The Plague is riding high until, in a forced dénouement, one man decides to cast aside his fear and fight the totalitarian state.

Since Camus tends to be both loquacious and preachy, it's fortunate that director Thomas Cullinan imbues the production with sinewy style and imaginative staging. All the actors wear half-masks, in commedia dell'arte style, which gives this parable a heightened sense of symbolism. At times, the fascinating, frozen faces recall the tortured visages from another tormented Spanish town, Picasso's "Guernica." The acting is properly loud, declamatory, and not terribly nuanced, since this is a play about ideas, not characters. Still, sinister Andrew Narten produces chills as The Plague, especially when he takes fiendish pride in his button-down appearance ("You expected a giant spider, perhaps?"). And Allen Branstein almost screws himself into the stage a couple of times as he limps, leaps, and twitches as the cynically amoral Nada.

After a brisk and enthralling first act, the show bogs down with long and unnecessary stretches of dialogue that are redundant to a fault. Twenty minutes could easily be lopped off Act Two without causing a ripple. Also, a doomed love affair between two young people (played by the very capable Nick Koesters and Kristie J. Lang), which is meant to be the emotional counterpoint to the unfeeling domination of the mega-state, never rings true. So their final Romeo and Juliet death scene verges on unintended parody. Cullinan also employs the classic Woody Guthrie folk song "This Land Is Your Land" as the anthem that begins and ends the show, but the cast doesn't make eye contact with the audience and misses the tune's deep emotional wallop.

Near the end of the play, Camus puts his finger on the key issue when a character asserts, "When crime becomes the law, it ceases to be crime." This is how every fascist state is constructed -- and why there are so many jittery citizens in our new neocon America.

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