Truth and lies, history and myth are the subjects of Rajiv Joseph’s remarkably complicated and intriguing play, Describe the Night.
For the Wilma Theater’s stunning production, the playwright has revised his 2017 script, realizing that in Blanka Zizka he had an ideal director, combining a bold, theatrical imagination with an Eastern European sensibility. Matt Saunders (set) and Thom Weaver (lighting) create a volatile and dramatic arena.
How to describe Describe the Night? It is thought-provoking — both philosophical and political — but it’s also funny. We watch a Soviet report being redacted: “The black Magic Marker: the most useful tool in all of Communism. There is nothing that cannot be eventually crossed out, and changed.”
But the play is also a kind of romance, a fairy tale with a mysterious forest and love affairs and fortune-telling.
Over the space of three hours and a time span of 90 years, we will meet many characters, some historical figures, some the playwright’s invention.
When Nikolai (Steven Rishard), Stalin’s violent right-hand man, meets Isaac Babel (Ross Beschler) on a starry night, the famous Russian author is writing in his diary; that diary will be passed onward across generations through the play.
Nikolai’s wife, Yevgenia (Sarah Gliko) becomes Babel’s lover, and their granddaughter will grow up to be Urzula (Campbell O’Hare), who will cross paths with Vova (Keith Conallen), a vicious KGB agent (who will, eventually, become the here unnamed Vladimir Putin).
Mariya (Brett Ashley Robinson), is a tortured journalist and Feliks (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) runs a car rental place at the site of the plane crash that effectively assassinates the entire Polish government on board.
Joseph’s plays each have a gruesome moment when the audience gasps. There’s always a tantalizing buildup to it; the playwright invites us to wait, and, like a gaper delay on a highway, we can’t resist looking at what repels us.
Those moments are all about hands, the body part that distinguishes us as human beings, the part that makes art, the part that allows us to touch.
Shocking hand savagery is central to Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, where a moronic soldier offers a starving tiger a Slim Jim and the tiger bites off his hand. Biting the hand that feeds you launches the political metaphor of this powerful anti-war play.
The artist in Tiger, who has created an Edenic garden filled with topiary animals, has much in common with the artists in Animals Out of Paper, whose origami creatures likewise bring harm to the innocents. Similarly, the job of two young soldiers in Guards at the Taj is to behand the thousands of workers who created the world’s most beautiful building. In Gruesome Playground Injuries, “gruesome” is the operative word.
In Describe the Night, there is leech soup. The recipe is astounding: Prick your fingers, place your hands in the bowl of broth filled with leeches. Add red pepper to cook the leeches that have fed on the soup-eater’s blood. Eat it and then remember your shocking past. It is fabulously disgusting, but also fabulously existential.
We see how fiction — both literary and political — is created. After Nikolai’s murder of an old man, which Isaac witnessed, he invents an alternate scenario and insists that saying makes it so: “When the world is a gang fight, the people want a gangster to lead them.” The contemporary relevance is chilling.
Describe the Night
Through Feb. 16 at Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.
Information: 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org.