There are eight characters (seven players) in Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night, and nearly as many definitions of “truth” are espoused in the course of the evening. Is truth the accurate and complete description of a scene? Or only “what happens” and nothing of “what does not happen”? Or what someone in power declares to be true?
Can a sufficiently inventive writer (Isaac Babel, in this case, played by the earnest Jonathan David Martin) summon an imaginary blood-infused delicacy into existence? In Joseph’s world, yes he can.
Joseph skillfully weaves together a fantasia from the stories of the historical Babel, the Stalin-era Nikolai Yezhov (the “vanishing commissar”) (company member Tim Getman, showing all sorts of colors), and the Smolensk air disaster of 2010, a crash still smoldering with doubts and alternative explanations. There are deaths foretold that come to pass, a rise to power likewise predicted, and personal timelines interlinked with Atkinsonian levels of coincidence.
Under John Vreeke’s direction, there’s an additional level to the truth-telling, one of bearing witness. Maria (Kate Eastwood Norris) and Feliks (Justin Weaks), two people caught up in the carnage of 2010, also sit at the edge of the playing area to observe the scenes set in 1989 and 1940. If Maria and Justin didn’t see it, did it really happen?
Another plot thread follows the unexpected rise of Vova (the very skilled Danny Gavigan), from scrawny Stasi agent to a position of much greater, deadly power.
But let us not forget the playfulness of the young Isaac of 1920, inventor of subversive gangster ducks.
- Describe the Night, by Rajiv Joseph, directed by John Vreeke, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington