The first-ever staging of the challenging and complex novel does it full justice—though you don’t have to read the book before seeing the play.
The set is minimal. Three bright green, wheeled chairs are parked behind two white, narrow tables on which stand four name plates. This is an easily overlooked detail, especially for audience members who are not familiar with Roberto Bolaño’s enormous and complex novel, a dark, labyrinthine tale of ardor and hate adapted for the stage for the first time at Chicago’s famed Goodman Theatre. But for those of us who have read the late Chilean expat’s 2008 masterpiece (see my original review here), the missing chair reminds us that one of the four European critics, or academics, readers meet at the start of the book, Piero Morini, will arrive at this staging of a literary conference seated in a wheelchair.
As the theater filled noisily during a rush hour of gridlocked traffic made worse by a snow squall, I wondered how such a simple, utilitarian arrangement, which includes a lectern at the front of the stage and a projection screen hanging at the rear, can possibly serve as a vessel for this epic work. But as soon as Jean-Claude Pelletier (played by Lawrence Grimm) and Manuel Espinoza (Demetrios Troy) came striding in along with the rolling, dignified Morini (Sean Fortunato), and commenced introducing each other with great flourish, mixing flattery and insults to sizzling comic effect, it became clear that it is the language, so crisply and energetically delivered, that truly sets the scene. And when the missing member of this quartet of passionate literary intellectuals—smart, sexy Liz Norton (Nicole Wiesner)—finally rushed in, the chemistry was scintillating.
Reading the book is a commitment of body and soul;
so, too, is attending this sustained presentation.
The four share an obsession with a mysterious German writer with the inexplicably Italian name of Benno von Archimboldi. Wintry images of European locations as well as a rumpled bed are projected onto the hanging screen as the academics tell the stories of how they discovered Archimboldi and each other. While they speak, they deftly rearrange the chairs and tables into configurations that indicate the surroundings—restaurants, bars, a taxi cab, and a bedroom—for their funny, erotic, unnerving, even violent encounters. Vigorously choreographed and perfectly timed, the first part of five—following the structure of the novel, flew by, leaving me impressed with the judicious selectivity involved and thrilled by how electrifying verbatim passages from the novel are when performed live. But how would they handle the increasingly brutal scenarios to come?
It turns out that each of the five parts of the play, so incisively and commandingly adapted and directed by Robert Falls, the Goodman’s long-standing artistic director, and current playwright-in-residence Seth Bockley, powerfully convey each distinct atmosphere in ingenious sets of escalating complexity and dimension. In “Part Two: The Part About Amalfitano,” Pelletier, Espinoza, and Norton have followed Archimboldi’s faint trail to Santa Teresa, a city in northern Mexico. Now the stage and screen are bright with vibrant color; music plays, and the ambiance is far more richly textured and redolent with memories. Most of this act takes place in the backyard of a gentle, poetic professor, a Chilean exile, Oscar Amalfitano (Henry Godinez). His wife has left him for a poet in an asylum in Spain, and he is worried about the safety of his beautiful teenage daughter, Rosa (Alejandra Escalante), as hundreds of women and girls, as in the real city of Juarez, on which Bolaño based Santa Teresa, are being raped, mutilated, and murdered.
In “Part Three: The Part About Fate,” Oscar Fate (Eric Lynch), an African American reporter for a Harlem magazine, Black Dawn, arrives in town on assignment. He usually writes about social-justice issues, but in the wake of the sportswriter’s death, he has been sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match and ends up hanging out with a trio of rowdy, mescal-drinking party people, and lovely Rosa. Here the production expands as a large screen is lowered into place and the story continues in high-quality video sequences, bringing us into real-world scenes, and temporarily turning the living theater into a movie theater. In cinematic close-ups, the cast is larger-than-life, the story somehow more glamorous, and when the action returns to the stage, the actors seem even more alive and present than before.
Bolaño’s characters are investigators and storytellers, truth-seekers and liars, mourners and oracles. The importance of reading and the need for books are asserted and articulated in many modes, the strangest and most haunting of which lends itself well to the stage: the melancholy Amalfitano, in emulation of a Marcel Duchamp piece, hangs a book on his backyard clothesline to let the sun, wind, and moon read it.
“Part Four: The Part About the Crimes,” brings us into the detectives’ office in a Santa Teresa police station. The desks are piled high with files haphazardly documenting the unsolved homicides. The detectives strut and slouch and drink and tell grotesquely obscene, shockingly misogynist jokes, establishing the city as place systematically hostile to women. Behind the office is a crime scene, a bit of desert marked off with yellow tape and occupied by the nude body of a murdered young woman. We can’t see the wounds, so instead we register her beauty, silent testimony to the horror at loose in the world as these vulgar, corrupt, callous law officials conduct halfhearted investigations and mock and denigrate a women reporter and a congresswoman seeking information and help.
In the novel, page after page is filled with shocking facts about the victims and the sexual torture that ended their lives, all presented with chilling forensic detail and detachment, forming a long, terrible litany. In the play, women repeatedly walk into the detective’s office, interrupting the action, and forcefully recite the facts about the murders. Over and over again. This should be more devastating than it is, but somehow it feels hollow, a failure of the sensitive imagination at work in every other element of the production. It isn’t until the end of this section, when their voices begin to overlap and a choral effect is achieved, a hopeless and endless echoing, that the full power of the fear, anger, and grief locked in these dossiers of death is conveyed.
The detectives finally make an arrest, and the suspect is a curious one: Klaus Haas (Mark L. Montgomery), a tall, fair, vocal, angry German shopkeeper. This brings us to the final act, “Part Five: The Part about Archimboldi.” When we return after the third intermission, enthralled, exhilarated, and nearly exhausted, the stage is utterly transformed. I felt as though we were in the realm of a Prussian Edward Gorey in the years marching to the Third Reich as I gazed at the interior of a well-furnished mansion filled with books, art, and silver. A little, knock-kneed girl named Lotte (Alejandra Escalante) in a white-lace dress held bell-like by a large crinoline tells the story of her beloved brother, the freakishly tall and altogether freaky Hans (Mark L. Montgomery), who fails at school, is sent to work as a servant, and becomes a decorated Nazi soldier and then a writer. The action runs the gamut from banquets to voyeurism to courtship to fights to the death as screens on wheels are swung into place with military precision to catch images and video of the countryside, decadent 1930s Berlin, WWII, and a well-appointed publishing house. As the play concludes, we see the tentacles of genocidal madness and evil reaching from the Holocaust to the annihilation of hundreds of Mexican women by an invisible army fueled by misogyny and machismo.
The exceptional and thrillingly versatile cast members play multiple roles with authority and palpable enjoyment. Lawrence Grimm, for example, plays both the suave, self-loving academic Pelletier and a despicable detective, Epifanio Galindo. Alejandra Escalante plays Liz Norton and Lotte. These shape-shifting performances are vital expressions of Bolaño’s polyphonic aesthetic, fascination with storytelling, and the metamorphosis of identity and the self catalyzed by secrets, lies, and crimes.
The Goodman’s production of 2666 is endlessly intriguing and complex in its visuals and soundscape, rising and falling bewitchingly on the comedy-tragedy gauge. There is no need to have read the novel before seeing the play; it has its own presence and power. As someone who has read the novel, twice, I feel that the play does it full justice. Reading the book is a commitment of body and soul; so, too, is attending this sustained presentation. I can hardly imagine what tremendous stamina is necessary for the cast as they perform this epic work hour after hour, role after role, night after night, channeling the intricacy of Bolaño’s vision and language, his psychological, cultural, and social acuity; his insights into memories, dreams, and nightmares, psychosis, and love; his compassion, conscience, rage, and wit. The Goodman adaption never feel abridged, reduced, extracted, leavened, or expedient. Falls, Bockley, the cast, and the designers were steeped in 2666, fluent in 2666, and possessed by 2666, and from those depths they have transmuted Bolaño’s words into breath, flesh, voice, and motion.