The premise of Barabbas, Will T. F. Carter’s new play currently in production at the Theater for the New City, is certainly intriguing. Set in a Peruvian prison during a period of insurgency and guerrilla warfare, the drama uses the story of Barabbas and Jesus to explore topics such as self-preservation, personal sacrifice and forgiveness. Unfortunately, the drama, which centers on the Sendero Luminoso (or Shining Path) revolutionaries in 1980s Peru, never ignites any sparks.
Barabbas, who is here referred to as Bara (Mateo d’Amato), is a lawyer sent to prison as the country’s new president attempts to publicly eradicate all outward signs of political corruption. A pair of unscrupulous guards (Gypsi Aponte and Sergio Caetano) process Bara into the prison, and their actions highlight the layers of venality at all levels of Peruvian society. Case in point: one of the guards celebrates the nation’s more democratic system as he nonchalantly purloins Bara’s Rolex and European-style loafers.
Bara is assigned to a cell with Jesús (Anwar Wolf), the government whistleblower, who is in no small part responsible for Bara’s imprisonment. Since landing in prison, Jesús has become much more pious, and as the men pass their time together, Bara grows to admire his cellmate’s contrition and spiritual strength. This is evident in an exchange between the prisoners:
Jesús: Are you scared, Bara?
Bara: Of course I am! You’d have to be an idiot not to be, or have some kind of death wish.
Jesús: You know why I’m not scared, Bara? Because God led me here. Whatever transpires, I have faith it is his will.
Unlike Jesús, Bara is not able to accept his fate as a divine condition, and he maintains contact with a corrupt lawyer (Nikki Valdez), who has not forsworn graft and string-pulling to help free the political prisoner. She constantly reminds Bara that he is a pawn in the political machine and that as allegiances shift, he will be able to exploit his advantage. As she tells him: “To them, you’re a political prisoner. Bara, your freedom—you’ll be a symbol for the party. They’ll be knocking down the door to let you go. And they’ll probably have someone interview you on the way out.”
Audience members familiar with the biblical story will already know which of the two prisoners acquires freedom and which one comes to an unpleasant end. Without giving too much away, the conclusion of Carter’s play is deflatingly anticlimactic. The playwright does not address the controversial New Testament elements, which some scholars argue is evidence of an underlying anti-Semitism, for instance. In the original, Pontius Pilate asks the crowd who should have his sentence commuted, and who should remain imprisoned. The predominantly Jewish masses overwhelmingly call for Barabbas to be freed and Jesus to be crucified. The play does not have a similar plot conceit.
As a result, the literary and dramatic parallels have not been fully explored, and except for Jesús’s devotion to God, it is not clear how the narratives inform each other. The play hints at a clash of wills between the two men, but the shifts in the dynamics are not especially clear. This is partly a fault in the writing, though under Eduardo Machado’s direction, the actors do not make a very strong impression. Wolf and d’Amato share some movingly acted soul-baring moments, but apart from the references by other characters to their potential violence and sexual encounters, their rapport seems comparatively banal.
Mark Marcante’s set design effectively delineates various locales in the prison, and Katherine Anick-Jenkins’s costume design along with Alex Bartenieff’s lighting help establish the stark living conditions of the main characters. (David Margolin Lawson’s sound design is also appropriately atmospheric.)
Most impressive, however, are the murals by Sonya Pelenefish adorning the walls of the black-box theater. Painted in vibrant colors in the style of propagandistic South American street art, the images evoke a precise time and place in Latin America’s volatile history. Regrettably, the vibrancy of the colors and the specificity of political tension in these two-dimensional images offer a constant visual reminder of the flatness of the play’s central characters.
Barabbas plays through July 14 at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave., between Ninth and Tenth streets). Evening performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a special Fourth of July performance at 7p.m.; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18 (general admission) and $15 (student/senior) and may be purchased by calling (212) 254-1109 or visiting theaterforthenewcity.net.