‘Bondage’ and its bodysuits make us ponder race, relationships and the rituals of power

Role-play is what goes on throughout the 60-minute “Bondage,” so let’s pretend. You’re playwright David Henry Hwang. It’s 1992, and you’re still basking as the Tony Award-
winning author of the 1988 “M. Butterfly.” What now?

“Bondage,” now getting, shall we say, a whip-smart staging by Pinky Swear Productions, feels like “Butterfly” stripped bare. The themes are the same. In “Butterfly,” a French diplomat spectacularly deludes himself that his longtime Chinese lover is not a man. How? With a Pandora’s box of East-West and masculine-feminine stereotypes.

That plot was based on a jaw-dropping true story, and there’s no beating it for tabloid appeal. With “Bondage,” Hwang efficiently files it all down to raw essences, giving us nothing but an unnamed, unidentifiable man and woman, each concealed head to toe in stretchy, form-fitting black outfits.

The setting is an S&M parlor. The man is a submissive client. The woman is the dominatrix. Both are hooded, and Pinky Swear doesn’t hand out programs. We don’t know the actors’ names, and therefore can’t guess about ethnicity. We have to play along as they act out — the woman as a blonde, then as black; the man as white, as Asian and so on.

What unfolds, of course, are rituals of power. Who gets the upper hand, and how? Is there an attraction? Based on what? It might seem that a too-familiar steambath of identity issues is on tap, but Hwang’s dialogue is savvy, even as it stays rooted in its original period.


Allyson Harkey and Jacob Yeh in ’Bondage.’ (Lucas Zuniga)

“This is the 1990s,” one of the figures says. The laughter that rippled through the intimate Anacostia Playhouse on Saturday night sounded bemused but also, perhaps, a little unnerved that so much of the gamesmanship and social analysis still hits home. (Right down to a degrading bit of boot-licking, there are striking parallels with the current “Mies Julie,” the South African update of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, in which the durable bindings of race, gender and class are taking their tragic course.)

The woman’s role is especially sharp. Her submissive client wants her to come out on top, but it’s her job to make him earn it. The actress playing the dominatrix argues with speed and mischief, upending expectations each time the man thinks he’s pinned a “relationship” where he wants it. The man is effective, too, and it would indeed spoil things to reveal their names, because the climax depends on the possibility that they might peel off these masks.

Until they do, the actors are confronted with a unique challenge, because their faces are covered. In fact, neatly wrapped inside costume designer Liz Gossens’s black Zentai suits (picture the Spider-Man silhouette), they look like nothing so much as three-dimensional shadows. This puts a premium on body language, and under Toni Rae Salmi’s direction, it’s worked out dynamically, without slipping too dreadfully into exaggeration and caricature.

Note: Pinky Swear gets its audience “in the mood” with an aggressive pre-show environment that features naughty photos (discreetly covered — you have to lift a flap to see) and a staff of leather-dressed “helpers” roaming through the makeshift bar area. Don’t be surprised if a submissive someone kneels next to you and offers to hold your drink, just because.

That’s frisky, but beside the point. Hwang, whose 2007 “Yellow Face” comes to Theater J in January, doesn’t make “Bondage” the sweeping study that “M. Butterfly” was, and an hour of it is enough. You won’t beg for more. But Hwang’s exercise is still limber, to say the least.

Bondage

by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Toni Rae Salmi. Set and lighting design, Chris Holland; sound design, Kenny Neal. About one hour.
Tickets $20. Through Nov. 23 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE. Go to
pinkyswear-productions.com.

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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