Saturday, April 16, 2011

Romanian Holiday? Lucian Blaga's Zalmoxis at Georgetown

Romania's contribution to 20th Century literature has been wildly undervalued, but there are signs that this is changing. Tomas Sandqvist's book, Dada East (MIT Press, 2006), for instance, was a remarkable excavation of Dada's roots in Romania that greatly expanded our understanding of artistic spheres of influence.

Ion Ratiu Post-Doctoral Fellow in Romanian Studies at Georgetown University Cristina Bejan is operating in that same spirit of reclamation and evangelization. She has directed a terrifically smart and spirited production of an early play by Lucian Blaga, one of the key writers and thinkers of 20th Century Romania. Her take on Blaga's 1921 work Zalmoxis -- produced by the Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES) and the Davis Performing Arts Center -- will be performed at the university's Devine Studio Theatre on Friday, April 29, Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1.

I was fortunate enough to attend a special sneak preview of Zalmoxis at the Romanian Embassy last week, and even in the small and decidedly untheatrical space, Bejan's skills as a director and commitment to translating Blaga's language and vision shone through. Zalmoxis is a difficult play -- dense and mystical metaphysics studded with deployments (subversions, even?) of thorny proverbs and parables. Yet the play is also laced through with sharp political and spiritual confrontations that Bejan and a talented (and all-female) cast that includes Taffety Punk Theatre Company member (and Burn Your Bookes alumna!) Esther Williamson, Sarah Stephens, Carol Spring and Anika Harden identify and dramatize with energy and skill.

Blaga is a fascinating character -- a poet, philosopher, dramatist and diplomat who navigated the treacherous waters of interwar Romanian nationalism and fascism only to fall victim to persecution by the nation's communists until just before his death in 1961. A good introduction to some of Blaga's work is Andrei Codrescu's volume At the Court of Yearning: Poems, which was published by Ohio State University Press. (It's out of print but still widely available in libraries.)

As I mentioned, Zalmoxis is among Blaga's early works. It's wildly ambitious, encompassing Dacian myth, folklore, philosophy and politics. Its view of the latter is precociously cynical (which perhaps was a good thing in 1921 Romania), yet the play does have a fiercely spiritual core that also burns through. In her remarks at the embassy preview, Bejan also stressed the themes of exile that run so strongly and persistently through the play.

One of the persistent themes during the talkback at the Romanian Embassy event was the dearth of notable Romanian authors in translation, and the lack of opportunities for bringing their works to English-speaking audiences. In her production of Zalmoxis, however, Bejan has seized this particular opportunity and run with it. For anyone in the DC area who's interested in Central, Eastern and Southeastern European literature, Zalmoxis is a "must see" event.

Tickets for Zalmoxis at Georgetown University's Devine Drama Studio available here. Full press release about the production here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Chicago's Trap Door Theatre in DC: An Interview with Artistic Director Beata Pilch

In January, during a trip to Chicago to read an essay on Dubravka Ugresic at a celebration of The Common Review and pursue an exciting artistic collaboration that I'll be spilling the beans about soon, I had the privilege of seeing a production of Hamletmachine -- the best-known work (at least the United States) by Heiner Müller -- at Chicago's Trap Door Theatre.

Müller isn't performed much in the United States, and it's not hard to figure out why. He's thorny, uber-intellectual and obsessed with the most unAmerican of all disciplines: history.

Tony Kushner summed up why Müller is such a valuable (and yet undervalued) resource for American playwrights in his introduction to Carl Weber's translations -- The Heiner Müller Reader:

Americans are, famously, hope addicts, frantic for a fix to stave off the despair which, repressed, threatens always an explosive, destructive return. Müller says one must learn to live without hope or despair, and these extraordinary plays seem, as Beckett's do, to accomplish that: despair is made mock of in the vigorous beauty of the poetry, in the great diabolic fun of the dialectics, by means of which the drowning of hope in the blood of the culpable and of the innocent (often indistinguishable) is staged.

Though its garnered more attention than any of other works by Müller in the United States (Hamlet!), Hamletmachine is a very European play at its core. Indeed, to experience Müller at his most accessible for an American audience, I'd likely recommend Quartet, Müller's astonishing and visionary revision of Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses or The Task, his drama of the collision of revolution and colonialism. (All three texts are included in Carl Weber's translations Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage.)

But that is where the miracle of Chicago's Trap Door Theatre -- a company that's dedicated to bringing some of the best European works of the last decades to America -- comes in. Their Hamletmachine was revelatory -- excavating all of the complexities of Müller's play but also weaving them together into cohesion and clarity. The production (directed by Max Truax) won a number of raves in Chicago, and I was determined to find a way to keep up with what they were doing.

Fortuitously, I did not have to wait for very long to have Trap Door land on my front door. The company will perform another work that they have presented in their current season -- French playwright Pierre Notte's Me, Too, I Am Catherine Deneuve -- for two nights later this month at Washington D.C.'s Source Theatre. (Friday, April 22 and Saturday, April 23 at 8 p.m.)

Me Too, I Am Catherine Deneuve is a terrific play -- a sharp, sassy, and wonderfully musical romp through the minefield of personal identity and the family romance. (Check out the trailer that Trap Door made for the production -- directed by Valery Warnotte -- to get a sense of the wicked fun.)

I wanted to find out more about Trap Door, and let Balkans via Bohemia readers in on what I discovered. Trap Door's artistic director, Beata Pilch (who appears as "Mother" in Deneuve) kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions via email.

Balkans via Bohemia: Washington, DC audiences may not be familiar with Trapdoor. Why do you focus on European theatre? How have you created the circumstances for your company to become a critical success in Chicago?

Beata Pilch: I have always had a fascination with the European avant-garde and felt that American theatre was lacking in spirit and innovation whereas Europe was continually seeking new styles of interpretation and creating "movements" in art. There are some U.S. artists I admire and have been greatly influenced by (Peter Sellars & Robert Wilson) and wanted to follow their lead by taking risks with bold concepts and a global vision. This type of mission is what has driven my passion and dedication to developing Trap Door Theatre as a leading force in contemporary theatre, not only in Chicago, but throughout the country and abroad.

Tell DC audiences a bit about Pierre Notte's Me Too, I Am Catherine Deneuve -- the collision of twisted family romance and cabaret that you're bringing to Source Theatre. How did you happen upon the play? What in Notte's play appealed to your sensibility?

For years I have traveled and researched foreign plays translated into English and have made many contacts that keep me updated with new material. When I was in need of finding my next French project, I was recommended to read this play by my contact at the SACD in Paris, Sandrine Grataloup. Trap Door often delves into dark themes with a sense of humor, mirroring the absurdity of our lives, in a tasteful and provocative style that strives to result in compelling and entertaining theatre. The violent themes of self-abuse and loss of identity are ones that we as a modern society can relate to and Mr. Notte's story is much too common today and therefore, our audience can feel compassion for these characters because they can see themselves in these modern day archetypal roles. I was also very much drawn to Notte's music and lyrics as well as the entire cabaret aspect of the production. I thought it supported the piece with a sensitive score in order to release the tension of the subject matter and enhanced the overall quality of the production with music and song.

Innovative and pervasive use of music seems to be a big part of Trap Door's aesthetic. (Much of your production of Hamletmachine was sung.) Why is that? What strengths in the company allow you do it so successfully?

Hamletmachine is a classic play that has been interpreted all over the world for several decades. The director's vision was to keep it true to its classical form by staging it as a German Opera. This vision for the production also allowed for the text to be manipulated in a specifuc manner which in turn inspired movement and choreography. Only a few of the actors in the cast were trained singers and the others had the music and text adapted to suit their voice. The strengths in our company lie in the open mindedness and trust within the ensemble and the strong vision of the director to allow such interpretations to develop.

Looking to the future, are there playwrights or works that you are interested in tackling next? How carefully do you monitor what's happening now in European theatre to decide what might appeal to Chicago -- and other -- audiences? Are there certain countries that are particularly vibrant at the moment?

I am open to reading all different types of plays. I like to educate myself with contemporary European writers to stay current with the times. For the future, we are looking at material from Werner Schwab, Howard Barker, Matei Visniec, Dario Fo, etcetera... We look for scripts that embrace profound global issues and are told in a simple and stylistic manner. We are always seeking to enlighten and educate our audiences with current topics and allow the audience to see themselves in the world and how important their role is in it. I believe that art keeps a society civilized.

Eastern European countries are currently coming out with lots of new work that is quickly spreading all over the world. Their material seems to be particularly vibrant at the moment. I believe it is due to the political turmoil they have had to overcome in the past and now are sensing a new-found freedom for expression and exploration. I have noticed a repetition of certain themes especially within the youth and their struggle for understanding their place in the "new" world.

Tickets for Me Too, I am Catherine Deneuve on April 22 and April 23 are available from the Alliance Francaise (which is sponsoring the DC production) or by calling 202 234 7911.

(Photo: Holly Thomas as Genevieve and Sadie Rogers as Marie in Trap Door Theatre's production of Me Too, I Am Catherine Deneuve.)