‘New Guidelines for Peaceful Times’
Through Oct. 28
Spooky Action Theater
1810 16th St., N.W.
In Brazilian playwright Bosco Brasil’s “New Guidelines for Peaceful Times,” currently nearing the end of its American premiere at Spooky Action Theater, the compelling and timely play about immigration presents two men who have been exposed to the horrors of war and torture. In one hour of real time conversation, a desperate immigrant goes up against a seemingly unfeeling functionary who holds an enormous amount of power in deciding the fate of others.
It’s the spring of 1945 and World War II is wrapping up. Immigrants from Europe are seeking new opportunities in South America. Here, it’s up to immigration officer Segismundo (Carlos Saldaño) to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Today’s prospective new resident is Clausewitz (Michael Kevin Darnall), a new arrival from war-torn Poland, eager to charm his way into a new country.
But Segismundo senses something’s not quite right about the willing Pole. He’s fluent in Portuguese and while he lists his occupation as farmer, his uncalloused hands throw doubt on the claim. Also, he comes with no belongings, not even a suitcase. So, Segismundo can either overlook these irregularities and allow Clausewitz entry or send him back to his cargo ship en route to the remote Falkland Islands.
The pair meet in Segismundo’s dockyard office, a smallish room made of raw slat wood walls and modestly furnished with standard-issue office furniture: desk, chairs, hat rack and a radio. A framed photograph of a young woman holds a place of importance on the desk.
Clausewitz is genial but understandably anxious. He lists his background and wartime experience. Segismudno isn’t particularly impressed. After much conversation, Segismundo proposes a challenge: Clausewtiz has 10 minutes to make him cry. If Clausewitz succeeds, he gains entry to pursue a new life in Brazil. If not, he’s out.
The more we learn about each man, the more we realize they aren’t as they initially seemed. The turbulent world has pushed them into unpleasant circumstances. Plus, the war years have impacted immigration, Segismundo unfeelingly explains: Last week Jews were turned away. Now Brazil doesn’t want Nazis.
Both Darnall and Saldaño are superb. Their level of concentration is through the roof. On press night, they delivered a very wordy (and quite beautifully translated) script without a moment of falter. Darnall, a thrillingly versatile actor (who identifies as bi), has the showier part. His role calls for more palpable emotion and he boasts a credible Polish accent. And as the more reserved of the two, Saldaño imbues what could be a one-note performance with lots of nuance.
The piece is cunningly staged by director Roberta Alves. She’s assembled an adroit cast and a top-drawer design team. Within the claustrophobic office, she opens up the story considerably. When sharing memories, the characters are bathed in blue light that take us outside of the office. Throughout the play, there’s the sound of rain and waves lapping against the dock.
The playwright explores the power and importance of language, theater and freedom of expression. In a long monologue, Clausewitz, the immigrant, recites a passage from “Like is a dream” by Spanish Golden Age poet Pedro Calderón de la Barca. In reference to liberty, he asks, “What law, what justice or what reason denies men the sweet privilege, the fundamental right, that God has given to the crystal stream, a fish, a beast and a bird?”
It’s a good question.