Riveting Talk Breaks the Locks in La Razón Blindada

Inspired by the experience of playwright/director Aristides Vargas’ brother, a political prisoner of the Argentine dictatorship, La Razon Blindada (“Armored Reason”) is an extraordinary meditation on the endurance of human creativity in the face of hopelessness.

In Rawson prison, a desolate Patagonian pen where the government stashed anyone who dared question the status quo, inmates were kept in solitary confinement for all but a single hour each Sunday, when they were allowed to speak to another inmate so long as they remained seated. If they stood, they would be shot. How did the prisoners use their hour? While some plotted escape (there were two attempts, both unsuccessful), others told stories, allowing their imaginations to carry them beyond the confines of the prison.

In Vargas’ play, two prisoners, De La Mancha (Jesus Castaños Chima) and Panza (Tony Duran), perform a tale inspired by Don Quixote, a free-flowing fantasy overflowing with sly wordplay, rapturous fancy and obscene humor. They remain seated throughout, planted in wooden chairs on casters, and as they talk they roll wildly around the stage, conveying both the claustrophobic confines of the prison and the freedom of creation. Their reverie is periodically interrupted by terror, as the guards walk past and the prisoners freeze, silent and afraid.

Vargas’ script is as funny as it is distressing. Panza’s long comic riff on the sad life of dogs, whom we call our best friends but force to sniff out our bombs and drugs with no more thanks than a pat on the head, had me in fits, and the moment it stopped I felt nothing but the prisoners’ panic.

The 24th Street Theatre wisely chose to present the show in Spanish with English supertitles. The theater’s executive director, Jay McAdams, told me that 24th street used to produce shows exclusively in Spanish or English, which created segregated audiences that have been brought together by the addition of projected translations. I’ve been thinking a lot about supertitles lately, and while I think the ones in La Razon Blindada work quite well, like all the ones I’ve seen, they could have been better.

Even if I spoke no Spanish whatsoever and there were no translations, I would be impressed by this production. Castaños Chima and Duran are such ebullient and present performers that the emotional core of the play would come across regardless. Vargas opted to translate only about three quarters of the script, leaving out much of the profanity and some of the more baroque puns. This worked well; there are a lot of words that are funnier spoken than read, and they would only provide visual clutter.

The supertitles are two lines long in quite large type, projected just above the performers’ heads, and so are very easy to read. Some line breaks were not well chosen,  leaving readers hanging on a preposition. Some translations were over-literal, diminishing the lyrical beauty of Vargas’ prose. All things considered, though, 24th Street’s supertitle work makes a good model for other theaters hoping to produce bilingual theater.

La Razón Blindada, 24th Street Theater. 8 pm Saturdays through June 25. $15-$24.