Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A.R.T.'s "The Communist Dracula Pageant"

A colleague of mine recently remarked that productions at American Repertory Theatre transcend colloquial theatre communique of "good," "bad," "I liked it," or "I didn't." The Communist Dracula Pageant, like last season's Donny Darko, is a perfect example of this otherness in theatircal discourse. I'm not sure that the play is good; I'm not sure that I liked it; but, it's one hell of a ride.

So, let's start with what I do know: Thankfully, the program and lobby are full of dramaturgical information telling me that the play is about the regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. Elena, an Eva Peron-type persona, fashioned herself as a great scientist who dictated actual scientists to do research to which she would ascribe her name. Nicolae was a Communist politician who rose in rank until eventually appointing himself President of Romania. As part of his political rise, he staged pageants linking him with famous Romanian heroes, such as Vlad the Impaler, or Dracula in common parlance. Thereby the frame story of the title is established. However, the play has much more to do with Ceausescu's manipulation of power as a fascist dictator, the rebellion that led to his eventual demise, and his (and Elena's) trial and execution. It is political theatre at its most complex.

The play begins by presenting us with an interpretation of the agitprop pageants which Ceausescu mandated to further his political career. Exploiting a "bad acting" style coupled with ridiculous costumes, props, and choreography (the hammer and sickle cut-outs on the head are a nice touch), the playwright takes us into the world of the pro-Communist pageant. However, this is quickly subverted, when one of the actors asides to the audience using a Romanian dialect (all the other lines are delivered sans accent) to tell us the truth of the situation. This is a device used throughout the play to comment upon the theatrical presentation versus the factual, historic reality. It is an interesting approach, that hearkens the work of Brecht and achieves pure epic theatre. This is playwright Anne Washburn's greatest achievement or biggest downfall as the epic approach prevents us from siding with any one person.

The play uses an ensemble of actors to represent the people of Romania, officers within Ceausescu's regime, and the revolutionaries who overthrow him. As an audience, we certainly opine with the people's plight; however, we are never quite sure what we are supporting or refusing. The best example of this is a very effective scene where ensemble members dressed as stage hands and television camera crew position a dead body for a photo op. Although, the body was already dead, it is manipulated for political purpose. The scene is endemic of the entire play as it lasts too long and fails to communicate its purpose. Obviously, the play is a contemplation of the effects of power and politics upon the individual, but it also waxes poetic into the existential contemplations of truth, history, and reality. At the end, one can only identify a response of perplexion.

As previously mentioned, the production is worth seeing in its exploration of ART's unique brand of theatricalism. Veteran A.R.T. actors Remo Airaldi, Thomas Derrah, Will LeBow, and Karen MacDonald all deliver amazingly strong performances evoking the humanity in their characters even when it is not written into the script. Other members of the ensemble - primarily students at the A.R.T. institute - provide stiff, affected performances that are forgiven because they are so pretty. Expect to see these young people on Soap Operas rather than theatrical stages in their future careers. The only perplexing casting choices are John Kuntz whose overacting seemed unnecessary and cheap for the production and Matthew Maher, a NYC import, whose resume is impressive, but whose speech impediment effected his ability to morph characters which is essential in an ensemble production.

Although, I don't expect that the Communist Dracula Pageant will be appearing at a theatre near you anytime soon, I am grateful for the artistic vision of the ART to take a risk on such a show. It is particularly relevant given that it played during the heated election season. It's theme of the corruption of power certainly carries a thinly veiled political message for America in 2008 and here's hoping more theatres will dare to take a political stance over silk and softshoe.

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