Barriers

You may question the wisdom of a production that deliberately inflicts physical discomfort upon an audience for dramaturgical purposes.

Well, how about a production that deliberately hinders sight-lines in the name of dramaturgy??

With both Shhhh and now English, the Atlantic Theater Company has devoted their winter to messing with these two sacred pillars of the viewing experience.

Speaking of columns:

Director Knud Adams’ staging of Sanaz Toosi’s new play sticks a pole smack in the middle of downstage center. Though Marsha Ginsberg’s set rotates throughout, there tends to be a structure blocking at least part of the audience’s view (those freaking chairs!), befitting a play about barriers, specifically the language barrier, and how it divides identity.

The general conceit: a group of Iranian students are learning to speak English. When they speak English, their accents ring of the customary fragmentation that faces anyone who tries to become fluent in a new language. But when the characters speak in their natural Farsi, the actors deliver these lines in English, using the actors’ natural English/American accents. The effect: the characters seem like they have different personalities depending on which language they’re speaking. Which makes sense: who we appear to be is inextricably linked with how we express ourselves, and expression is a lot harder across the language barrier.

But the play’s mindful of how it privies English-speakers to a perspective not available to them off stage. In real life, these audiences can see only one side of the Iranian characters’ dual identities — the side communicated through their hesitant English — which self-evidently tells only a fraction of their truth. Without a theatrical devise to translate in the moment, there are hurdles to overcome to attain such clarity, for all involved.

So the aforementioned obstacle to our sight-lines acts as a visual reminder of how the English-locked are locked out of gleaning who non-English speakers actually are without a theatrical cheat code to clear the language barrier. The set fragments our view of the action, matching the fragmentation not only of the characters’ English, but also of their identities across the language barrier, and outsiders’ perception of them.

This theme is put on front street from the get-go. The production’s opening positions the audience as removed onlookers: we start by spotting the main character through a window in the set. Though the play proceeds to move through this barrier, opening up the characters’ interior worlds, the architecture of the initial arrangement establishes the audience’s limited perspective.

This limitation returns near the end. In the middle of the final conversation between two of the lead characters, they seamlessly switch from English to untranslated Farsi, reminding English-speakers that the play has been translating speech that the Farsi un-fluent wouldn’t be able to comprehend in their daily lives. These audiences are denied whatever resolution the characters’ words reach; exactly how the play concludes can be understood only by the Farsi fluent.

Though the production spends most of its time unrealistically bridging the language barrier, this closing moment — which happens behind a damn post! — brings us back to the reality of cross-language translation. What can’t help but be lost, and what might be gained, in translation?

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