The border between the warring countries of Constanza and Tomis runs near the house of Levana, who was born in Constanza, and Atom, who was born in Tomis. They are a long-married couple of advancing years, and they earn their keep by burying and registering the hundreds — the thousands — of war dead who year after year have littered the bleak landscape just outside their windows.
And now an uninvited visitor to their little house is a huge, taciturn, uniformed Guard who has orders to set a new border — a border that happens to run through their home — and move them back to their respective native homelands. "My work has always turned around borders and identity," says Ariel Dorfman, out of whose head these people have sprung. "My own existence has been affected, let's say, by exile and repatriation of a sort. A life made out of people fleeing, leaving, borders changing, armies coming in."
Fifteen years after his Death and the Maiden — which asked, is or is not this Dr. Miranda, the man who once, in a fascist Latin American prison, tortured and raped the woman into whose hands he has now fallen? — started its sweep around the world, the bi-national Ariel Dorfman is back among us with The Other Side in a Manhattan Theatre Club staging at the New York City Center.
"Here I am," he says from his desk in Durham, NC, "full of buoyancy and bounce and laughter. When people meet me, they say, 'How can you write so dark?' Well, I want everyone to know that this is a playful play. I wrote it from this very spot. It started as a commission from the New National Theatre of Japan, in Tokyo, something like New York's Lincoln Center and Public Theater combined. They told me: 'Something to do with a man and a woman on a border.' I said, 'Look, I have to have a third character,' and that's where the Guard came in." Levana (Rosemary Harris) thinks the Guard is her and Atom's long-lost son, Joseph. Atom (John Cullum) isn't sure. The Guard (Gene Farber) says his parents are dead. He also says, "What you can't remember doesn't exist" — a line that's the crux of the whole play, since, as the playwright notes, all three characters have different memories.
Dorfman and his wife of 40 years, Angelica Malinarich, live "primarily" in Durham, though they still also have a house in Santiago, Chile. He and sons Rodrigo, 38, and Joaquin, 26, often write together "and Rodrigo is my dramaturg." In spring semesters at Duke University, Dorfman teaches potential writers "to be critical, to be subversive." And not to be defined, penned in, by borders.