In re-imagining Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’ mysterious and engaging short story “The Book of Sand” (from his collection of the same name), Lisa Ramirez—one of the Bay Area’s most talented theater artists—hasn’t merely brought to the stage Borges’ story of a man who becomes possessed by an infinite book.
She has embellished the elusive story in ways that might make you dizzy. “Book of Sand (a fairytale),” a production of Oakland Theater Project where Ramirez is associate artistic director, is no Word for Word verbatim dramatization; it’s a vision of a sort of possession that could drive a person barking mad. And as directed by Susannah Martin, that vision is fully realized in this beautifully staged and performed production by the 10-year-old theater company on this, its last show of the 2022 season.
In Borges’ story, a humble retired librarian is approached by what he believes to be a door-to-door Bible salesman. But it turns out the salesman is selling an ancient “diabolical” book that literally never ends. It is full of words in an unknown language. The librarian is enthralled and buys the book, which he gradually believes to be nightmarish, even obscene, a book that “slanders reality.”
In Ramirez’s 75-minute expansion of the very short story, we actually get to see the ways in which the librarian is possessed by the book. And in Kevin Rebultan’s excellent, calibrated portrayal we witness a man whose mind and body seem to be taken over by a force that indeed completely alters his reality. (The ways in which, in spite of himself, his arms and legs thrash in a wild dance are charming to behold.)
The librarian narrates —“This story is true,” he tells us several times—and Rebultan is endlessly engaging.
Here, the salesman is a weird itinerant woman in tattered hippie clothes (Alice Ruiz’s costumes for both actors are pitch-perfect) who bursts in, seems to speak in tongues, maybe comes from another planet and sticks around to haunt the librarian as he goes through various agonies and ecstasies; she’s played with a wonderfully dark intensity by Carla Gallardo. Just as she has transferred the power of the book to the hapless librarian, she is uploading the visions in her fevered mind to him.
Much of the time he’s immersed in a large sandbox, sifting the sand through his fingers, digging in frantically, a visceral representation of the way the words in the magical book drift through his entire being. Or perhaps the way we ourselves seek to understand the constantly shifting reality of our lives.
But in interweaving into her text excerpts from other writers, Ramirez offers such a confusing array of recorded voiceovers, snippets of music of various genres and sound effects (sound design by Elton Bradman) that it’s hard to get a grip on the core of what’s happening. The program lists 18 excerpts from writers as varied as James Joyce (Leo Bloom in “Ulysses”), Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Conrad. It’s simply too much weight for this ethereal story to bear.
But there’s plenty of talent and professionalism to be seen on Oakland Theater Project’s small stage inside the Flax building. This is a company to be watched as it begins its 11th season.
Oakland Theater Project’s “Book of Sand (a fairytale)” continues through Dec. 4 at Flax, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland; tickets are $27-$37. Call 510-646-1126 or visit oaklandtheaterproject.org.