Often disheartening fodder for plays, films and other creative works, the concept of a world in which art is subjected to critical sanitization and scorning approval from a dispassionate demagogue is one which reasonably breeds discomfort and queasy responses. Perhaps now, in a time where artistic production is at its most scintillating and provocative, yet the strictures of conservative, suffocating powers-to-be seem more and more draconian, more omnipresent, this idea of a censor who regulates what art is acceptable or must be bowdlerized seems all the more daunting and starkly realistic.
David L. Williams’ The Censor stiflingly and inventively captures the anxieties of living in a world in which the titular cultural overseer is omnipresent, feared and (seemingly) ruthless. The play, staged by the Throughline Theatre company in Lawrenceville’s intimate Greybox Theatre, is a disquieting but never off-putting telling of The Censor, Charlotte, as she visits an art gallery and takes a keen interest in the work of a radical visual artist, Nellis. Problematizing Nellis’ already perceivably incendiary art is the fact that Nellis is a transgendered man, which relegates him to a life of secrecy, castigation and intense discretion. Charlotte, however, is not all that her ostensible persona would seem—she expresses that she is willing to allow certain themes or artists deemed insidious by the Commonwealth—the loosely defined, but clearly strictly regimented government super-structure that dictates which art is permissible and what is passable as quality—slide and allow standards to be more flexible. Charlotte’s involvement with Nellis’ artistic world becomes more fascinatingly complicated as he agrees to commission a portrait of Charlotte to assuage her feelings of being disregarded by the patriarchal figures in the Commonwealth.
It is from this point that the evolution of Charlotte’s fierce humanity, especially in relation to the art and the dire need for personal expression that Nellis depends upon, that drive the rest of the dramaturgical action. The at first obfuscated but gradually revealed poignant sensitivity that permeates Charlotte’s spirit is what is truly evocative, as the play’s plot unfurls into one of artistic liberation at the hand of Charlotte’s machinations for the sake of undermining the Commonwealth’s regime. Maura Underwood is striking as the titular censor, establishing the appropriate amount of austerity and snarling authority in her first few scenes that makes her eventual vulnerability and conviction in later scene all the more heartfelt. A show filled with truly robust performances, the interactions between Nellis—a soft-spoken, delicately powerful Liam Ezra Dickinson—and Charlotte convey a certain viscera, a certain understanding of nuanced human relationships that they are remarkably worth remaking upon, as they carry the tension and suspense of the play.
The Censor is a play whose importance is obvious but never redundant or pedantic—the beautifully articulated trans narrative; the imperative role of art in society and the ramifications of the limitations on art; the wariness of overpowering government. Much of the power of the play and immense feeling of masterfully crafted anxiety comes in the casts subtle performances and the intimate setting of the theatre.
Special thanks to Throughline Theatre Company for complimentary press tickets. The Censor runs at the Grey Box Theatre through September 24th. For tickets and more information, click here.