There are many things that are based on historical fact in the play Describe the Night.
The Alley Theatre, not to be daunted by having their smaller space flooded by Hurricane Harvey, opens their new season at the University of Houston’s Quintero Theatre. Playwright Rajiv Joseph newest play takes the audience on a trip through time and ideology.
The world premiere of Describe the Night presents real life characters like Russian writer Isaac Babel, a well-known author from the early 20th century who was executed during the various Stalin purges; and Nikoli Yezhov, an early chief of the Soviet secret police who himself was purged both of his life and his place in Russian history books; as well as a plane crash on April 10, 2010 in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia that literally killed the President of Poland and over 18 ranking members of the then Polish government.
The play jumps through time starting in the 1920s in a forest in Poland during a war between Poland and Russia. In successive scenes, we advance through Stalin-esque interrogations during the cold war, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the current possibility that Vladimir Putin is the bastard child of the characters that we’ve been living with for three very satisfying hours.
At one point the wife of Yezhov, who herself will suffer an untimely fate, nourishes the cast with a special soup called Qureshi.
Putting leeches in warm water makes Qureshi, then pricking your finger, sticking said finger into the water and allowing the leeches to engorge on your blood until they expand and die completes the brew. You devour the soup, and the leeches, and the resultant effect is a momentary clairvoyance that reveals your personal destiny.
The soup plays a part in the path of the play as do the various offspring of the characters we meet at the beginning. The play proper moves in a linear manner despite dashing back and forth over various timelines — until the final two scenes. It’s then that you realize Joseph has presented a puzzle that will require the audience to think hard about what they’ve just seen transpire.
And that’s a good thing.
Alley regulars like Todd Waite and Elizabeth Bunch shine in their roles. Jason Babinsky, playing a difficult role, makes his Alley debut. It’s a pleasure watching Babinsky crawl across the floor in a drugged stupor after he’s ingested the leech soup as well as observing him, in a later scene, decidedly assume his role as the most feared member of the secret police.
The last two scenes were the most interesting in terms of how they fit into the plot and will be the impetus that will evoke the most after-performance discussions.
Describe the Night runs until October 15.