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Review: Bringing Borges to Life in ‘Footnote for the End of Time’


“We cross infinity with every step; we meet eternity in every second,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore could have been talking about the beautifully labyrinthine work of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, which works like a mathematical equation without end, and where time is as flexible as putty.

Theater in Quarantine’s latest small-scale, digitally savvy production, “Footnote for the End of Time,” stages an adaptation of a Borges story about a Jewish man named Jaromir Hladik, who is facing execution by a Gestapo firing squad before the onset of World War II. Regretting the work he won’t be able to finish — a play called “The Enemies” — Hladik prays to God for more time and receives it in the most peculiar way: The second before the bullets fly, time stops, and he’s locked in the moment, granted a year to finish his work, if only in his own mind.

Joshua William Gelb’s adaptation eloquently interprets Borges’s original text using poetry, music and stirring illustrations, under Jonathan Levin’s direction. With other digital offerings from Theater in Quarantine this summer — adaptations of a comically loopy sci-fi mind-bender by Stanislaw Lem, a neurotic stranger-through-the wall story by Kafka — Gelb has shown his love for slipstream literature with head-scratching conceits. These Zoom productions, filmed live from a converted closet in his Manhattan apartment and accompanied by innovative visual and audio effects, have matched the texts in their idiosyncratic approaches.

In “Footnote,” that takes the form of Jesse Gelaznik’s stunning illustrations. Gelb, stationed stiffly against a plain white backdrop, provides the narration while a hand draws the scenes around him, illustrating characters, soldiers, landscapes, tidbits of dreams. Gelaznik’s smudgy, thick-lined charcoal images, eye-catching in their own right, are drawn and erased and edited around Hladik — a perfect metaphor of the workings of the writer’s imagination.

The middle sequence of the short production, which features Hladik recounting the plot and structure of his yet unfinished play, is an especially adept meeting of performance and effect. Gelb breaks from his statuesque stance, and is duplicated via computer animation this time. The figures repetitively dance and gesture toward each other in a series of tableaus from Hladik’s play, while around him, Gelaznik’s drawings disappear and reappear, making and unmaking the stage around these imaginary actors. Alex Weston’s four-part musical accompaniment, featuring plucky strings, provides a jaunty bounce to the scene.

Speaking of bounce: Gelb’s adaptation renders Borges’s prose as a long poem. The sprightly meter of the text abounds with exact rhymes and slant rhymes, as well as playful consonance, assonance and alliteration, carrying along the play’s stream-of-consciousness-styled progression of ideas.

Sound was the
sole concen
tration re
jecting the wrath of the
writ-large

Written he
wrote til his
drama was
done

The poetry seems to rise effortlessly from the delicacy and thoughtfulness of Borges’s prose.

If only the text’s mouthpiece could have been as dexterous. Gelb’s heady, motored delivery is so quick that Borges’s language is often lost in a bramble of syllables and sounds; in the last section, he pivots to a singsong that similarly detracts from the performance. Levin’s direction creates a production that is artful and musical but with a performance that feels hollow and divorced from anything human.

“Footnote” toys with a sense of narrative distance, as Gelb’s monologues alternate between Hladik speaking in the first person and narrating the story about himself in the third person. The result is a dissociated Hladik; the character is robbed of most of his emotional dimension, which feels strange for a work about a man facing death and his fears about what his life will amount to.

This is part of the short story’s larger conceptual problem the play has to consider: How does an actor sincerely perform Borges, a writer of beautiful, wondrous works that are rarely interested in feelings? He is a poet of puzzles and an auteur of ideas, and in his removed existential musings, he describes his characters’ pains and griefs dispassionately, as a means toward their intellectual awakening. But in a live performance, we should get more of a living sense of the man than we do on the page.

From the beginning of the play, we know Hladik will die; he’s staring Chekhov’s gun right in its mouth. The work may stake its biggest claim in the end of time, but that doesn’t mean the human element should just be a footnote to the story.

Footnote for the End of Time
Available on YouTube.

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