And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers




Stark Raving Ensemble

at Pillar Studio

Mastering Fernando Arrabal's desperate, brilliant And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers is like trying to paint Niagara Falls: it takes extraordinary clarity of vision. Arrabal's torrent of images ranges from the most precious (a prisoner imagining the lunar landing as a wedding ceremony) to the most profane (Cleopatra performing fellatio on Jesus Christ). As a whole, Arrabal's play demonstrates the seemingly endless scope of the human imagination and the human soul.

Set in a Spanish prison, where four revolutionaries have been condemned for crimes against an authoritarian state, Handcuffs is, in Arrabal's words, "to be thought of as a shout." Specifically it's a shout against the atrocities of the Franco regime, as well as a shout on behalf of human dignity. Arrabal writes from firsthand knowledge, having lived under Franco as a child and become a political prisoner himself in Spain in 1967. This experience seems to have had a profound effect on his work. While his pre-1967 plays have a clarity and simplicity reminiscent of Beckett, his later plays are characterized by delirium and dissonance, described by one critic as "the gentle hell of the unconscious."

The overt politics of Arrabal's Handcuffs are utterly straightforward, intentionally naive. The state controls the media, the church, and the judiciary. Prisoners are executed for any espousal of the rights of the individual. Trials that last six minutes have gone on far too long, especially since sentences are decided before hearings even begin. The revolutionaries in the play fight for justice and democracy in generic terms. As Tosan (Michael John Stewart), the chief revolutionary, proclaims in his epiphanic scene, "We must open the prison and disband the army. The emancipation of man must be total. And revolution is the only answer." Hardly a sophisticated argument, but one with deeply felt passions behind it.

Arrabal draws a nightmarish cartoon world not only as a shout against tyranny but to create a space where the human body can be rediscovered as sacred. Arrabal's male prisoners and the women who come in and out of their lives can be sure of one thing in their uncertain world: their bodies ground them in an irrefutable reality. Reminders of carnality that Western culture typically considers profane--urine, feces, semen--are sanctified here. For example, the prisoners Amiel (David Engel) and Katar (David Lauby) defecate together into a ceramic pot with almost ritualistic intensity. Then Amiel says, "I like touching it and eating little bits. My mouth fills with earth, life, infinity. I can feel myself being born and dying. I'm a golden insect and an angel of mud."

Arrabal's ability to give the human body a kind of saintliness without compromising its corporality gives Handcuffs a subversive religious ecstasy. This is the body that tyranny wants to destroy. This is the body that reminds us we belong to nature--and nature will ultimately topple any government, no matter how powerful. To achieve his vision, Arrabal uses the bodies of his actors in extreme ways: they're called upon to defecate, urinate, and nearly copulate. In one scene, three women in turn put a man's penis in their mouths, exclaiming that they are drinking hot chocolate from it.

It probably comes as no surprise that Stark Raving Ensemble--a group of relatively young Chicago actors, recent graduates of Columbia College--would be in over their heads tackling this play, however commendable their ambition. What is surprising is how unwilling they are to participate in Arrabal's drama. This production is characterized by a continual fear of the body. Nearly all of the nudity has been removed, and the sexually explicit material is masked. The actors keep their backs to the audience to fake the hot-chocolate scene, for instance. In another sexually explicit scene Amiel dreams of being released from prison and meeting his wife Lelia (Kimb Shiver); the script calls for the two to remove their clothes and embrace, "kneeling, touching from knee to breast." Then, "with religious dedication," Amiel is to place a handful of his sperm into her mouth as though offering her communion. In place of this powerful and difficult scene, here Amiel takes off his shirt, Lelia remains completely clothed, and the actors simulate a quick fuck under a white sheet.

As a result this production reinforces the very constraints Handcuffs seeks to overthrow. The religious act of sexual or nonsexual union is reduced again and again to masturbation, rape, or simulated intercourse. The body in this production is profane.

The performers seem equally ill at ease with Arrabal's text, which is highly poetic. Amiel describes a sexual fantasy like this: "I dream we kiss and offer each other little electric engines full of dew. We teeter on satisfaction and splash each other in the sea while thousands of salmon swim between our buttocks . . . and then I come." Instead of simply offering such images, which might resonate for an audience, the actors labor through the text, wrenching unnecessary emotions from images complete in and of themselves. As a consequence much of the play becomes unintelligible.

Too often rough physicality replaces dramatic technique. When Tosan meets with his attorney (Mitchel R. McElya), a puppet of the state who looks forward to Tosan's death sentence, Arrabal gives the attorney enormous power through his utterly matter-of-fact allegiance to the state. The playwright's words say it all. But instead of exploiting the tensions inherent in the text, in this production the attorney draws his gun not once but twice in two minutes in order to demonstrate his power.

Much of the production is characterized by a raw ensemble physicality familiar to anyone who has seen a lot of Chicago theater. And because Arrabal's play is highly fluid--scenes appear and disappear every few minutes--the always-moving bodies of this production add confusion where clarity is needed.

Stark Raving Ensemble's intention is to examine state-sanctioned torture, and I don't doubt their sincerity, especially considering that a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Amnesty International. But focusing so heavily on the play's overt politics makes for a disappointingly ineffectual evening, not only because the play can't support this treatment over nearly two hours, but because the actors can't. Were the performers to somehow acknowledge their own inescapable distance from the world of the play instead of trying to simulate its unimaginable brutality, the evening would seem much more honest. As it is, beating someone on the back with a plastic chain while he screams in pretend agony seems something of an insult to those who truly suffer in forgotten prisons around the world.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →