RADICAL – a dialogue

Photo by Charlie Dennis

Dan O’Neil and J. Moliere recently attended Sergio Castillo’s Radical at Under St. Marks (through November 25th).

Dan: Let’s get started! My initial take on Radical was that it was a sort of hybrid between a procedural drama (underscored by the opening with a woman being interrogated and a prisoner being tortured) that took an end-around into being an argument-play regarding how one becomes an activist, at what point they turn away (and why), as well as to what ends activism must go in order to effect real change on a macro-scale.

Does that feel in line with how you received it? What did you focus on?

J. Moliere: For sure, I would say that is a clear summation of its arc, though I focused mostly on the inter-workings of the male-female relationships in a radical state. Not necessarily as romantic partners, but rather comrades. How do we resolve our needs for nurturing, intimacy (implied individualism), and safety with our fascist reality? I think I mentioned to you afterwards how much of the main argument seemed to be a monologue, and I mean that. An argument between two sides of the soul, two archetypes that we have historically gendered. The millennial wave is no stranger to the failure that is capitalism, so these questions of how to be an accountable, global citizen are very real. I think this play is an honest reckoning with our problematic youthful idealism.

D: Yes – this seems important. Let’s see if I can briefly recap the action of the play to highlight your insight around both the play functioning as a monologue (despite featuring multiple characters) and its decision to utilize gender within the argument. First, there’s the scene I briefly described above, in which Celia (played by Nicole Stoica) has been detained by the police and is being questioned by a detective (played by Brandon Johnson) about her past activities with an anarchist group, which is set aside several cut-away depictions of the leader of that movement, Hector (played by Sergio Castillo, who is also the author and producer), being tortured by two unnamed men. Those torture scenes are intentionally hard to watch, and I think there’s an opportunity for us to return to them a little later with our own interrogations with regards to, did they need to be there?

After an intriguing interlude in which a man mops a floor, the play then takes us into Celia’s home, where we learn that she is married and has a baby. (Cue the beginning of the action of gendering an argument.) She’s in a panic, thinks the apartment is being bugged. Her husband is ineffective and weirdly uninterested. He delivers her a message that has been left at their house, which – of course – is from Hector.

Which then delivers us to the main entree of the show, in which Celia and Hector meet in secret and rehash old memories, rekindle many cigarettes and maybe a little romance, and embody the argument that Radical has been constructed to examine. From the author’s note included in the program: “If Fascism has indeed taken its fullest and most dangerous form in America to date, there will soon come a day when an even more pressing question will have to be asked: Which side are you on?”

And so – as you note – the argument plays out to some extent along gender lines, with Hector arguing for violence as the only remaining response in the face of a gathering fascist force, and Celia arguing against it, although her argument is more the voice of the realist than an actual argument (she asks, do you think this will really make a difference, or is it just about you?)

What struck me, under this context, is how…unsurprising the argument was? It’s a complicated one, in a good way (i.e., one can be on the side of radical activism and still not know the answer), but was presented here as a little too much of a, well, monologue.

The form is also interesting and a little hard to reckon with at times. There’s definitely a gritty realism in play, but there’s also a tendency in the writing to add a bunch of poetry in (both main characters often quote poetry back and forth in the place of…a more embodied argument?) What did you think of the language, of the world of the play?

J: I think perhaps the unsurprising nature of it is owed in large part to the realities of the form. As you mentioned the role of Hector is played by the writer and producer, which certainly colored my view of the piece as a whole. As artists we often find ourselves wrestling with the use our work has in the arm of the Greater Revolution, or at least we hope it has some merit in that capacity. While watching the play I couldn’t help but think of my middle school self and her dreams of fighting the powers that be and how alienated I have grown from that girl. The years have taught me much of what Celia demands of Hector: stay vigilant of extremism, hypocrisy, narcissism. Her argument that his commitment to the cause was little more than a grand gesture designed to “get [his] name in the textbooks” carried the most weight for me. No one, especially young men with heads full of Marx and Neruda, can deny the allure of prestige. Admittedly I left the theater more on Hector’s side, fully in the belief that now is the time for calculated violence against a country that has shown us in no uncertain terms how very little it sees brown and black folk as people; Celia’s solution of supporting your communities and politicians that share your values seemed especially unconvincing, and more than a little naive. Nonetheless Hector, and to some degree Castillo, romanticizes the gritty realities of activism to such an extent that it becomes harder for me to trust in his vision.

I guess for me the world of this play is more surreal than gritty. It may be that I’ve become acutely desensitized to these sort of things, but the torture scenes were not explicitly visceral. Far more violent is the stunning scene in which the aid silently cleans up the blood after the torture is over. The swish of the mop, the glint of the wet floor, the dignity of the task…goddamn I loved that scene. None of it seemed entirely real though, maybe because it is set in an immediate future? I definitely wondered about the use of poetry interspersed with prose, since that felt distinctly dream-like but was treated as any other piece of dialogue. I appreciated that the characters had a wealth of knowledge on Byron and Blake, but your point about making those moments more embodied is cool. The poems are beautiful and I wouldn’t mind seeing those words physically affect the person saying them and the person hearing them, seeing them lean in to that strangeness.

D: A little more on that ‘set in the immediate future’: we gather this because there are a series of references to a Washington Square Park Massacre (the word massacre is carefully doled out as a dramatic reveal in the middle of Hector and Celia’s conversation), where an unknown number of activists were arrested and many others shot. The play seems to be gesturing towards the idea that we’re one event away from this being our reality – and I’m not sure setting it up that way clarifies it or muddies the waters. On the side of clarification, it adds a personal argument to Hector’s larger call for violence (“We knew them and they killed them,” to paraphrase.) In other words, it strengthens his argument for action.

But on the side of muddying things, it also creates a destabilization in the dramatic world – if there’s a massacre, is that also what’s led to the (apparent) torture of American civilians? The grotesque acts depicted here so matter-of-factly are somehow lessened in impact if framed as part of a sensationalized fictional dystopian future, and so it’s possible to dismiss them as exaggerated rather than inevitable. I sometimes felt like I needed a firmer grasp on what was being positioned, and how it was being positioned amid current facts and future fictions.

In the end, my truth: I felt most at home watching the early-to-mid reuniting of Hector and Celia. Their interplay seemed honest, moving, extremely well performed (even if I don’t really believe you can smoke the same cigarette for ten minutes). It was an extended moment in the play where no argument was being made – it was just two people, meeting again after time apart, navigating their past and negotiating their present. It was the part of the play that belonged to the love story version of the telling, and it left me longing for more of that – humanity along with all our human arguments.

Last thoughts? Favorite images (other than the floor mopping scene, which we both agree was extraordinary)?

J: Sentimental softie as I am, of course I was a fan of the reunion moments (especially since Celia’s relationship with her husband seemed so misguided). It also gave us a glimpse of Hector’s weakness, dedicated revolutionary though he may be. Celia, as in the Event of her, awakens him to a shared humanity he’d previously shunned outright. It gave the second half of the scene more weight, to see those once tender things between them be used for jabs and binds.

In the first scene we hear the detective recount a story in which a friend of his is killed due in part to crime and in part his own hubris. Johnson’s voice captures the underbelly of malice inherent in his office, while keeping a smiling, casual disposition. On stage it is an impressive feat to both terrify and remain in control, though in reality we see this whenever we turn on CSPAN or pull over for a cop. True violence is done in measured tones and backed by legislation. It’s vital to support work that is actively questioning the daily brutalities we’ve become blind to, those heinous transgressions done in our name that leave an ache for generations. Now (now now now) is the time that what is radical should become realized and vice versa. This play is certainly a step in that direction.

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