One is always assured of a fascinating evening at the Oakland Theater Project. For a small company in an out-of-the-way location (downtown Oakland’s Flax arts & design warehouse), the play choices are extraordinary, and the productions are professional and proficient. And OTP’s world premiere of Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Sand (a fairytale) is no exception.
The one-act, 75-minute play written by OTP Associate Artistic Director and award-winning playwright Lisa Ramirez is based on Borges’ 1975 short story. It’s a fascinating tale well worth reading, irrespective of seeing the play.
A retired librarian (Kevin Rebultan) is sold a mysterious book by an inscrutable Bible seller (Carla Gallardo). But this book is like no other; it has an infinite number of pages, and once a page is read, it seems to disappear forever. It’s called “The Book of Sand” because “neither the book nor the sand has any beginning or end.”
At first, the librarian is drawn to the book, and we watch as he reads aloud small slices of works by authors, including Conrad, Joyce, and Vonnegut. But he soon grows obsessed, haunted, perhaps addicted to reading from the book. During this mesmerizing transformation, the bookseller Gallardo, who now appears to be a devilish temptress, remains in constant motion in the background of the well-conceived and constructed three-tiered stage set (by Karla Hargrave). Gallardo moves; she dances. She climbs to the top of a ladder and confronts the audience and the librarian with enigmatic stares. It’s as though her continuing presence in the background is affecting the librarian’s mood.
Both actors are outstanding. Rubultan, as the librarian, conveys the gamut of emotions from pleasure to torment as he uses sand to suggest the book’s pages. At times his body seemed to move in spasms as he acted out different books. Gallardo, as the bookseller-dybbuk, is expressive, lithe, and properly menacing.
Under Susannah Martin’s able direction, the action is both powerful and highly stylized. It resembles an abstract expressionist painting. For a two-person play, a lot is happening on stage. The essence of Borges’ story sometimes gets lost amid all the activity, the readings, and the bits of music played. But it’s a spellbinding and vivid portrayal of Borges’ dark fantasy.
Book of Sand plays Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. (no performance Nov. 24-25) through Dec. 4 at The Flax Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland. Tickets are $10–$52. All attendees must present proof of vaccination or a negative test and wear masks. Tickets: https://oaklandtheaterproject or 510.646.1126. Live-streamed Nov. 26; available On Demand Dec. 3-Jan. 3. Livestream tickets: $15-35 online; tickets at https://oaklandtheaterproject.stellartickets.com