Playwright: Arthur M. Jolly. At: The Babes With Blades at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland. Phone: 773-904-0391; $20. Runs through: May 1
For an atmosphere of undiluted despair, you can't beat a Soviet prison. Jails in enlightened democracies are constrained by humanitarian regulations. Even dungeons under, say, the Spanish Inquisition are privy to restrictions on mistreatment of inmates. And the practices in Third World internment facilities are sufficiently well documented as to render them unpleasant, but not terrifying, to contemplate. Being marooned in the subarctic wastelands of Siberia, however, enveloped in endless expanses of frozen landscapethe very prospect is enough to strike a note of uneasy dread in our hearts.
Arthur M. Jolly 's interpretation of the visual imagetwo shadowy figures, one armed with a daggerinspiring his entry in the 2009 Joining Sword and Pen playwriting competition provides his story's premise as we witness wife and mother Anastasia ( called "mouse" by her abusive husband ) resist and kill her tormentor. She is sentenced to 12 years' incarceration, her cellmates comprising a generic assortment of personalitiesbossy Masha, meek Prushka, phlegmatic Svetlana and pliable Lubov ( and let's not forget the never-seen Paulina, rumored to have escaped ) . They quickly acquaint the newcomer with the division of labor that ensures their survivalthe maintenance of Lubov's pretty face and soft hands, for instance, the better to bribe the guards for special favors. Will self-preservation at any cost eclipse the compassionate young convict's attempts to retain her humanity? Only at the very last do we learn the truth of the means by which she endures her penance to re-emerge damaged, but alive.
Prisonsand their pharmaceutical counterpart, asylumsare the playwright's friend, literary environments conveniently preventing characters within from taking premature leave of their company when the going gets stressful. And when our knowledge of their workings are shrouded in mystery, the writer's imagination is free to impose plausibility on the most unlikely of occurrences. But director Brian Plocharczyk refuses to allow the dramatic ambience to descend into hankie-wringing bathos ( or, worse, B-movie camp ) , while fight choreographer David Woolley reins in the copious, but never gratuitous, violence to keep it well within the realm of gritty realism. These factors, coupled with uniformly restrained performances by the six-member cast, serve to reaffirm the Babes With Blades troupe's departure from rough-and-tumble romps toward serious artistry.