There's a reference in Fernando Arrabal's play to the well-known Hieronymus Bosch painting Garden of Earthly Delights--that nightmarish orgy of carnal absurdities, where naked couples frolic, crawl out of eggs, are impaled, flirt with bestiality. The allusion is quite good. This play shares not a few elements with the painting: that packed, encyclopedic feel that makes it difficult to appreciate in one setting; an absurd, chaotic tone; its unrelenting procession of perversions and paranoias; its skewering of symbols of power. Yet there are key differences. First, despite all its vulgar peculiarities, despite performers who are brimming with enthusiasm--and volume--the play somehow manages to be dull. And with a play, unlike a painting, we are not permitted to leave once we feel we have simply had enough.
The titular Emperor is a warped, insane man who attempts to wield a peculiar mental and erotic power over the Architect, an islander who willingly tolerates him. The two men are the only inhabitants we meet on a vague isle "somewhere in the ocean," represented by Curt Beech's kitschy tiki-hut set, which seems to have been cobbled together from the prop department of Gilligan's Island. Within this cramped and isolated space, the two march us through a wild, seemingly endless series of role-plays, fetishes, and fixations. The density of images pummels the audience. We are subjected to one role-play after another, in a rather formless, monotonous fashion: master/servant, teacher/student, mother/child, war comrades, confessor/confessed, judge/witness. We have a drag show, a glimpse of rape, pregnant nuns in labor, a Martian that bears a striking resemblance to a toilet brush, and even a meal made of an amputated foot.
"There is no redemption, only a switching of roles," is the humorless conclusion of the program notes. According to director/translator Abraham Celaya, the emperor is meant to represent power, civilization, the destroyer, and the architect is meant to signify nature, innocence, trust, the builder. But there is no real tension between the two actors. The roles are reversed so quickly that there is never much of a power play. Elijha Mahar plays the emperor's madness in a large, virtuosic fashion. Yet, as the architect, Derrick Demetrius Parker never really seems to take him seriously or fear him much. Parker responds to Mahar's melodrama with a roll of the eyes, a kind of sitcom humor.
Arrabal's writing may not be very cohesive, but it does have the potential for laughs. "After I suck his brains with the nucleic acid, I'll be able to command anything!" should be funny. Yet here, somehow, it's not. With a play that is so amorphous, it's up to the director to make sense of it for us and sustain our interest. I can't think of a more maddening challenge to direct and perform than this play, and Celaya should be commended for attempting it. Unfortunately the play proves maddening to watch, as well.