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Invisible Theatre’s 'The Letters' is a doubleplusgood drama

Power struggle play echoes Orwell's 1984

Better known for light comedy, Invisible Theatre opened its 43rd season with a taut psychological drama that owes much to “1984,” George Orwell’s dystopian novel, as well as to the Soviet era that provides the play’s setting.

The backdrop for “The Letters,” by John W. Lowell, is the Soviet Union of 1931, as Joseph Stalin was consolidating his dictatorship through fear and reprisals towards any and all opponents, actual or perceived. The play examines the issues of a culture built on fear and deception, through a two-person power struggle fraught with suspicion, manipulation and intrigue.

The cat and mouse game begins

The one-act play takes place in the bland, shadowy office of a Soviet ministry director, played by Roberto Guajardo. The Director has summoned subordinate Anna, played by Lori Hunt, up to his office for some unexplained reason.

When she arrives in the play’s opening, he is not yet there. Anna, alone in the room, tries to calm her nerves. When the Director arrives, he only makes small talk, evading the reason for this first encounter despite years of working in the same building. “We’re only having a pleasant conversation,” the Director smiles, though he is not known for ever having pleasant conversations or doing anything without a clear purpose.

The conversation fills in some of the required backgrounds. University-educated, Anna is a widow who has worked faithfully as a minor functionary at the Ministry for years. The Director confesses his own lack of education and chalks up his appointment to his military service. We learn about Anna’s two co-workers: one a loyal, slogging drunkard; the other, a younger intellectual who is lax in his attendance. Like a gun in the first act, we also learn the dismal fate of the former Director.

Rewriting the truth

As the cat and mouse game continues for the terrified Anna, we realize that this is an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, rewriting inconvenient truths to better align with the government’s preferred versions.

The latest project has been the redaction of any taint of homosexuality from historical letters by the country’s greatest composer (aka Peter Illich Tchaikovsky, though he is never actually named. In addition to actual Soviet-era efforts in this regard, the current Russian regime continues to suppress any notion that Russia’s most famous composer was gay, despite ample evidence, according to a recent New York Times post.) The complication to their good work? It appears that someone in the office made unauthorized copies of the original letters, and worse, now those copies can not be found.

Like Winston Smith in “1984,” though not as brutally, Anna is alternately encouraged to betray her co-workers, or confess herself, or alternately, assured soothingly by the Director that nothing is wrong and she is actually being promoted since the office is going to be missing at least one person. Realizing that she has been under extended surveillance, exposing her affair with her younger co-worker, further complicates things.

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Fine performances

Roberto Guajardo has a scent of evil to him as the Director, even in his seemingly kindest moments, as he skillfully manipulates and cajoles the hapless subordinate with inflection, gesture and touch. His performance is not particularly subtle, nor is it meant to be, as his character’s menace and brute nature plays against the smarter and not-entirely-helpless Anna.

In her straight-back rigidity, Lori Hunt brings discipline and some of the finest posture in recent years, to her unexpectedly strong-willed Anna. Her body language always suggests a fierce inner pride, a sense of the heroic individual going against the machine, even if her efforts seem doomed.  Hunt imbues Anna with a stoic, Russian strength, never submitting to defeat. She herself is a master at reshaping truth, likewise sowing fear and distrust for her nemesis to reap.

Susan Claassen, who is also IT’s ubiquitous managing artistic director, keeps a firm hand on the pace as the show’s director, allowing the tension to slacken and tighten organically with a sure-handed rhythm.

Claassen and associate artistic director James Blair also designed the claustrophobic set, filled with file cabinets, a functional desk set and an austere wooden visitors chair, plus a single, comfortable overstuffed leather chair, clearly the Director’s one extravagance, all set under watchful portraits of Lenin and Stalin. Creating a sense of depth with a simple door and hallway that effectively implies the larger, anonymous office as factory, deliberately compresses the space, effectively pushing the actors forward, able to operate only within a limited, defined area.

Of course, the play has a contemporary resonance in light of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing about government spying and the increasing recognition that our private lives are not safe from intrusion, at least as far as the digital world is concerned.

“The Letters” is a strong, dark and perhaps surprising work from the Invisible Theatre, which is usually home to lighter family comedies. Opening the season with such a well-done change-up demonstrates that like Anna, Susan Claassen and the Invisible Theatre troupe should not be underestimated.

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Tim Fuller

Lori Hunt and Roberto Guajardo in 'The Letters.'

If you go

  • What: “The Letters” presented by The Invisible Theatre
  • When: Through Sept. 22, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
  • Where: The Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. 1st Ave.  at Drachman
  • Tickets: $28, available at 882-9721 or online through ovationtix.com.