Human beings tell stories: It’s how we make sense of the world. It follows, then, that if your normal guideposts are taken away — say, if you are locked away in a prison cell — stories become more important than ever; they’re a lifeline, a way of escaping through the imagination. That dynamic is dramatized with hypnotic brilliance in Arístides Vargas’s La razón blindada, playing through November 11 at the Rubicon Theatre in a stunning Spanish-language production that originated at Los Angeles’ 24th Street Theatre. (Fear not: The English-language surtitles are effortlessly readable.) The play incorporates material from Kafka, and its feel is decidedly Kafkaesque.
Based in part on the experiences of the playwright’s brother during a repressive era in Argentina, the play focuses on two political prisoners who are allowed one hour per week, on Sunday afternoons, to quietly converse. The men, who call themselves de la Mancha (Jesus Castaños-Chima) and Panza (Tony Duran), use the time to improvise stories. Using such simple props as a bedpan, they create wild, free-association adaptations of episodes from Don Quixote, which grow ever more fanciful until a distant noise — a guard approaching? — causes them to reflexively freeze, bringing them suddenly back to their unbearable reality.
In real life, prisoners were forced to sit still during these encounters; Vargas honors this by keeping them seated during the show. However, their chairs are on wheels, and their spins around the stage reflect both the reality of their regimentation and the liberating feel of their flights of fancy. Those leaps into another plane of existence keep this potentially grim material surprisingly buoyant and frequently funny. Duran, in particular, is hilarious, especially during a virtuoso monologue in which he assumes the role of Don Quixote’s dog and complains about man’s inhumanity to beasts — and, metaphorically, man’s inhumanity to man.