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.

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