Before the Baltic wars and the breakup of Czechoslovakia, playwrights like Vaclav Havel and Milan Kundera had to write in code to get their plays produced, as do artists still living under similarly repressive governments. When last we looked, however, no such censorship constraints inhibit American playwrights from speaking their political piece. So it’s hard to see why Madelyn Kent was compelled to adopt an allegorical format and obscurantist idiom for “Peninsula,” a play with no need to hold its tongue because it has no political teeth.
Under the playwright’s own turgid direction, “Peninsula” has more to do with style than content. Originally written in Spanish and translated into English with grammatical and syntactical errors intact, the script is cast in a language that feels foreign in nature and inaccessible by design.
At best, the halting idiom lends an air of suspenseful foreboding to incomplete or otherwise confusing actions, as when a character announces: “Martin has been to arrest. The police arrested. The police have arrested him.”
On occasion, the strange cadences supply unexpected poetry to an unexceptional thought, as when someone recounts the conversation of a talkative old woman: “She talks about her life. Of the aged days. The country when she was young.”
But most of the time the verbal butchery just seems pointless, as in this tongue twister from a woman trying to reassure her husband that he has no cause to be alarmed by a summons from unnamed authorities: “Think it are the busybodies, you know, gossip. There are many peoples who. You know the radio knapsack.”
In her directorial function, the playwright seems incapable of distinguishing the provocative aspects of her own writing from its inanities. A dull exchange about the different kinds of engineering degrees (laboriously broken down into “mechanical, chemical, civil, and electrical”) is given the same weight as the plea of a wounded man seeking assistance (“I came here for help and you can’t help me. You can’t nothing!”).
Kent’s helming is more effective in devising a visual context for the disjointed exchanges of her inarticulate speakers. Using the narrow, shallow stage to its best advantage, set designer Narelle Sissons employs eight slatted doors that open to reveal scenes suggestive of a bedroom, a church, a pharmacy, and other locales of the vaguely named “peninsula” region where the play is set. Eerily lighted (by Matt Frey) and buffeted by the menacing sound effects (by Kenta Nagai) of a society in turmoil, the disconnected vignettes validate the scribe’s depiction of a country where people speak in riddles when they manage to speak at all.
In such a context, the performance style of the production is stiff and formal and sheer hell on the actors, who soldier their chores but fail to find much humanity in their ornamental characters. Only Marielle Heller, a stunning redhead with California credits who makes her local debut here, manages to keep her composure and suggest some hidden depths to the role of the self-absorbed and faithless wife she plays.
But after admiring Heller’s lovely face and taking in the oddities of the visual and verbal languages, one does want to know what, exactly, is going on here. And on that count, the verbose scribe is virtually mum. Things do happen on this peninsula — a woman cheats on her husband, a priest is seduced, a doctor is arrested, someone is beaten up, someone else gets his shoes shined — but these events don’t carry much weight or make much sense. Not in English, at least.