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The Power Failure


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Synergy Theatre Company

at Synergy Center

The Power Failure is one of the best new plays I've seen in Chicago. That this one-hour drama is so compelling is due in large part to playwright Mark Glinski's carefully controlled script and his obvious flair as a dramatist. Glinski's play is clean, intelligent, and above all economical, a quality sorely lacking in most new plays. Glinski hardly wastes a word, and most impressive of all, he understands the power of emotionally packed silence.

The Power Failure is set in the basement of an unnamed government institution in the capital of an unnamed country. The entire one-act drama consists of an interrogation of the Electrician (Dale Young) by the Official (Mark Vallarta), while the ineffectual Policeman (Arthur Aulisi) watches over the proceedings. The Electrician, who has a lengthy record of subversive behavior--publishing inflammatory literature, inciting riots--has been literally dragged before the Official after being horribly bloodied by someone before the play begins. The Official is convinced that the Electrician and several conspirators are preparing to cripple the city by causing a massive power failure, and his job is to find out when it will happen.

This is difficult material, not only because interrogation plays have been done many times before but because such a set up is so tightly focused on one time and place. Admirably, Glinski never resorts to theatrical gimmicks like fantasy sequences or voiced internal monologues. Rather his play takes place in real time, without break, unrelentingly. There is constant tension onstage, tension that Glinski never releases.

Glinski's greatest achievement here is the Official, played in a virtuoso performance by Vallarta. His character is on one hand so obvious. He is a sadist and a zealot, coolly and methodically torturing a subversive on behalf of patriotic ideals. "Many noble goals are being pursued in this building," he tells the Electrician. But on the other hand, the Official remains a mystery. His motives are never quite clear, and we never know if he truly believes his own rhetoric or if he simply faces a similar torturer if he fails to mouth the party line.

The Official's most compelling contradiction--and he is full of wonderfully evocative contradictions--is his overwhelming seductiveness and his utter normalcy. He is in many ways an unremarkable man, "giftless," as he calls himself. And Vallarta captures this elusive quality, giving the Official no memorable mannerisms or speech patterns. He is someone who is probably always overlooked. And in that, perhaps, lies his power. We don't expect him to be anything out of the ordinary, and thus we let our defenses down, allowing him to sneak into our minds and seduce us. Even in his cruelest moments, the Official is terrifyingly attractive: handsome, well-groomed, centered, calm, and charming.

The Electrician is a bit less clearly drawn, and for the first half of the show I was unable to engage with him. For one thing, he was covered with huge fake bruises and cuts that were both decorative and repulsive, and at one point he even coughed up blood. He also seemed curiously disengaged from the proceedings, neither cooperating with nor resisting the Official's psychological and physical attacks. But in the second half, Glinski allows the Electrician to return the Official's hostility, making the stakes higher for both. Young deliberately underplays the Electrician: words simply drop out of his mouth matter-of-factly, underscoring the paradoxical strength of a man who has nothing to lose.

The Policeman is perhaps the play's most interesting character because, as a friend of mine pointed out, he is the only one who might change--the two others are too defined by their roles. The Policeman never says a word but simply stands stupidly, waiting for the Official, who continually refers to him as worthless, to instruct him to smash the Electrician's head into the table again. But it is clear that something is going on with this man, and his allegiance to the Official seems unpredictable. In this way Glinski makes the situation all the more volatile. Aulisi plays the Policeman with mannered subtlety, almost imperceptibly changing his expression depending upon whether the Official is watching him or not.

The last ten minutes of this play are riveting, because Glinski has set up the expectation of some final, decisive action, but it is impossible to know what that action will be. When the Policeman finally takes his gun out of his belt and gives it to the Official, and the Official sits contemplating the gun, he could be thinking about shooting the Electrician, the Policeman, or himself. How impressive that this new playwright can create a moment with such complexity.

Diane M. Honeyman's direction is practically without fault. She has distilled her actors' performances and her stage pictures to essences. The Electrician sits or stands, the Policeman stands motionless, and the Official continually circles. Honeyman displays great self-confidence; often, when nothing is called for, she lets nothing happen. For instance, the play starts with the Official sitting at his table, staring at two lit candles for perhaps a minute. After the Electrician is dragged on, the two men sit silently staring at each other, until finally the Electrician smiles. Because nothing has happened thus far, that smile seems hugely significant.

I also enjoyed Honeyman's exploration of real events in real time. Somehow, as seemingly trivial events are given room to breathe, they become highly evocative and, paradoxically, highly theatrical. At one point, the Electrician and the Official simply sit on opposite sides of the stage, motionless, smoking cigarettes, listening to offstage musicians play Rhapsody in Blue. Honeyman gives us several sustained, pure moments like this, trusting in the simplicity of the carefully articulated gesture.

These "real" moments also highlight one serious weakness of this play, which is the fake violence perpetrated on the Electrician. His blood and bruises are clearly fake, and we know that when the Policeman smashes his head into the table, it's stage combat. What is far more frightening is the threat of injury: when the Official delicately runs his hands through the Electrician's hair, this simple moment is full of potential violence.

Even though it all seems so familiar, the carefully orchestrated human brutality in The Power Failure is contantly surprising. That is the most profound and disturbing element of this play. Perhaps The Power Failure is more Glinski's reaction to Harold Pinter's writing--and particularly Pinter's recent play, One for the Road--than it is an attempt to find his own voice. But what better master? And what an exciting evening Glinski has given us.

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