Catherine Filloux is an award-winning playwright of politically conscious theater that includes Selma ’65 and now Kidnap Road. Curiously then, she describes Kidnap Road as a “two-person play based in part” on the life of Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian senator and presidential candidate who became the high-profile hostage of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for six years. The play, while never mentioning Betancourt by name, follows the Franco-Colombian’s political life, captivity and release, in considerable detail, right down to Betancourt’s “condoms against political corruption” gimmick and the Harry Potter book she had with her at the moment of her capture. We expect some authorial license – Betancourt’s own 600 page memoir, Even Silence Has an End (2010), was marketed as fiction upon its release in France – and yet, despite Filloux’s proviso, we never feel from her play that this is not wholly Betancourt’s story.
That may be because the production that is currently at La MaMa is directed by Elena Araoz, who does not gloss over the play’s source material. The Woman, played by Kimber Riddle, is dressed in the same jeans and yellow Colombia Nueva teeshirt that Betancourt was wearing on February 23, 2002, when she ignored security warnings to abort a trip into FARC territory (for reasons that some observers interpreted as a tragically naive attempt to win votes in her presidential bid). Riddle also has the fine-featured, elegant beauty of Betancourt herself, so that it’s hard to see her character as anyone but Betancourt.
Yet, Araoz’s intentions also apparently lean toward fiction. The director writes that “[Betancourt’s] shocking story conjures questions about corruption in our own government and how we treat female politicians in the U.S.” Betancourt may well be the most famous kidnap victim since Patty Hearst, to make a parallel with the only politically motivated, female hostage-taking on US soil. But if a comparison is to be drawn between Betancourt’s ordeal in the Colombian jungle at the hands of a mercenary guerrilla movement and Hilary Clinton’s defeat in the last elections, it is a tenuous and conspiratorial one that chooses to ignore that Betancourt was one of 700 hostages, including many Colombian senators and deputies, male and female, taken by the FARC. Her “silencing” was hardly a unique phenomenon at the height of Colombia’s armed conflict and it was not, as far as we know, orchestrated by a political party or the Colombian government, for whom her kidnapping only added to its problems with the FARC.
Kidnap Road leads into other tangles, as well. Riddles’s Woman is seconded by a Man (Marco Antonio Rodriguez) who fills in for numerous figures in the story: the FARC’s Leader, a Commander, a Guard, God, the Woman’s Father, various Male Hostages and a “Fellow Prisoner (Male Colombian)” (an allusion to Luis Eladio Pérez, a Colombian senator, portrayed here as Betancourt’s lover in one of the text’s evident fictional flourishes). All of these roles are played by Rodriguez, dressed in camo and holding an assault rifle. Although he uses accents to differentiate between these characters, these barely delineated male figures have a tendency to blend into a single tormentor, or they did for me at least for the first half of the performance, with repercussions on our understanding of the Woman’s situation and her existential crisis (she cites Camus and Sartre – Betancourt was a French intellectual, after all). It should also be mentioned that when the dialogue moves into Colombian Spanish, subtitles are not provided.
Justin Townsend’s set is intriguingly abstract, however. Riddle spends the 80 minutes of the play’s running time in a modernist white cube that is raised about five feet off the floor and encased by criss-crossing steel cords that evoke the dense Colombian jungle. As white lights come up, Kimber is a beautiful odalisk reposing on her side in the sleek interior, like a jewel in its box. This is in some ways how Betancourt’s fellow prisoners viewed her, for her alleged selfishness and the special privileges she demanded and received from her captors (as revealed in their sometimes scathing memoirs). Betancourt was also a precious object displayed for public admiration throughout her captivity; her beauty, wealth and prestige (her father was a diplomat; her mother a Colombian politician) coalesced at the time of her capture into a celebrity abduction and a cause célèbre in France, her adopted country (her portrait hung for the six years of her captivity on the facade of Paris’ City Hall, her children regularly made impassioned pleas on French radio for her release, and France made several rash rescue attempts: she was France’s damsel in distress extraordinaire). If Filloux means for us to understand the Woman of Kidnap Road as a symbol and not Betancourt herself, Townsend’s set helps us to get there.
But then, what does that symbol represent, for Filloux? The title implies a fiction in the “road” genre, with its overarching theme of self-improvement. That allusion wants to reduce Betancourt’s grueling captivity into one woman’s adventure to “overcome the odds.” Is she a plucky heroine? The text also imagines the Woman getting a guilt-trip from both God and her father about abandoning her children to campaign, and it closes with her vow to be there for them, finally. Is she the female professional struggling to “have it all”? The main characteristic that comes through is her unrelenting determination as an intellectual and a politician to never give up an ounce of territory to anyone who would define her or her mission. That would be inspiring but – and I don’t mean to be facetious – stripped of the nuances of Betancourt’s aspirations in the context of Colombian politics, the play’s message might then be summarized as this: even with chains around your neck and guards outside your cage, you can still “lean in.”
It’s never been easy to know what women can or should take away from Betancourt’s challenging story and highly driven person, but Kidnap Road, while satisfying enough as a theater object in the existential two-hander genre, takes us into disorienting territory.