by SOPHIE KERMAN
A short story by Jorge Luis Borges is like a strange, otherworldly onion: it looks finite and compact, as throwable as a baseball, but the moment you start to peel away the outer layers, you discover that there is more to it than you thought there was, and the flavor just gets sharper and sweeter as you go deeper towards the heart. Taking Borges’s story The Library of Babel as his inspiration, Josh Cragun has attempted to replicate this poetic experience on the stage of the Nimbus Theater. (The full text of the story is available here, for those interested in a short and almost mystical read.) As improbable as it is, Borges’s imagined library – an infinite series of hexagons containing every book imaginable, managed by a tightly-regulated Order of librarians – is brought to life in Cragun’s Babel, but its atmosphere of veiled mystery and unending possibility doesn’t quite make it into the staged adaptation.
By far, the most successful element of the production is Zach Morgan‘s set design. The Nimbus Theater is not a large space, but the towering bookshelves (which also rotate to create new spatial configurations) create both a sense of cavernous expanse and an odd feeling of claustrophobia. The feeling of mystery is intriguing, but also forbidding: one gets the feeling that a trip to this library would reveal great truths, but that it is a space that, like a spider’s web, does not allow for an easy escape.
In order to truly do justice to Borges’s story, the plot of Babel would need to be just as dual in nature: detailed and richly imagined, while leaving enough unexplained as to preserve the viewer’s sense of foreignness. The first section of the play, as new initiates Elliot (Andy Gullikson) and Marina (Kara Davidson) are introduced to their duties as future librarians, takes us on just such a journey of discovery. As their mentors, Anna Sutheim and Jeffery Goodson add to our sense of the library’s grandeur and importance by revealing only what is necessary. (Sutheim’s tight-lipped restraint is the perfect counterpart to Goodson’s air of fatherly guidance.)
As the initiates learn more, however, the sense of strangeness that pervades the short story gets lost in over-explanation and a lengthy back-story. This is clearly an illustration of all those tried-but-true writer’s adages: less is more; show, don’t tell. The second act, in particular, leans heavily on Paul Schoenack‘s narration of the story of the Tower of Babel. In a play about books, a foray into storytelling might not be misguided; however, the pace lags due to both the production’s meditative character and some uncertain line deliveries by several of the actors.
Thematically, the play takes on interesting questions. Both the library and the Tower of Babel are presented as quests for the infinite, whether that ambition manifests itself in the structure of the Tower or the library’s promise of never-ending answers. What is so compelling about these quests, however, is precisely that they always elude our grasp. The Tower must fall, and the library – at least in Borges’s vision of it – can never be traversed or fully understood. But the production fails in exactly the realm it proposes to explore. Where the search for knowledge is most interesting on the borders of the inexplicable, this script explains everything; where Borges’s short story encapsulates more with less, the play’s impact is diluted by a rather long run time. We all love a good mystery, but some mysteries are more fun left unsolved.
Babel by Josh Cragun. March 3-25, 2012, at the Nimbus Theater, 1517 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413. Tickets are available by calling nimbus at (612) 548-1380 or online at www.nimbustheatre.com.