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Voice of Romania

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MAD FOREST

Remains Theatre
at the Theatre Building

In the second act of Mad Forest, playwright Caryl Churchill interrupts the story she's been telling--about life under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as perceived by two Romanian families--to introduce 11 new characters. They speak directly to the audience in thick Romanian accents, recounting their experiences of the last days of December 1989, when Ceausescu was overthrown and a bloody battle between his Securitate, the army, and various resistance factions ensued. These characters don't have names, only occupations. They don't interact or even look at one another; they just stand and tell their stories, offering 11 different viewpoints on the same few days.

This section shouldn't work. Aside from being too long and too static, it runs the risk of looking like a rehearsed "documentary." But in this Remains Theatre production, expertly directed by Michael Greif, it's fascinating. The ensemble delivers the goods--the facts--with remarkable ingenuousness, and one feels that the true voice of Romania is being proclaimed from center stage.

Churchill went to Romania in 1990 to find that voice. She spent a month documenting the changes that were taking place there (long after the media--the American media at any rate--had tired of them), but what she brought back is a play that's largely about silences. Greif seems to understand these miserable, enforced silences, and from the very first scene he allows them as much importance as any long speech. Denied the passion of a loud argument, a husband and wife drag on cigarettes--and when they do finally argue, they turn the radio up loud and speak in whispers. We can't hear them, and neither can any neighbors or nearby Securitate. Their daughter, we eventually discover, wants to marry an American. Later, the girl's father sits in silence, swallowing his rage while a Securitate member tries to use this information to force him to inform on others. A doctor reprimands a young woman who comes to him for an abortion--"There is no abortion in Romania, I'm shocked that you even think of it"--but during the pauses in their conversation he scribbles an address on a piece of paper and hands it to her in exchange for a thick wad of bills. A long, silent line of people waiting to buy meat are galvanized by a whispered cry of "Down with Ceausescu!" Their eyes hurriedly meet, then, still mute, they avoid one another's eyes.

These scenes are played with the leisure of the damned: the tension stretches out and settles in for an extended stay. This is the kind of quiet always threatening to explode. Faces are drawn, postures hunched, turmoil bubbles just below the surface. Michael Phillipi's functional set offers little cheer, and with its constantly shifting walls it's decidedly sinister and mysterious.

When the stories of revolution--of fear and exhilaration and skepticism--come pouring out in the second act, it's a relief to finally sit and listen to these people talk, whether they're rejoicing or grieving. And when we return to the two families established earlier, they too are learning to speak out. When the temporary National Salvation Front emerges and questions arise as to whether this regime is any better than the old one ("Did we have a revolution or a putsch?" someone asks), the families are torn apart by conflicting opinions on the new government.

"You begin to want blood," says one of the unnamed characters, a vampire who seems to express the very nature of revolution. "Your limbs ache, your head burns, you have to keep moving faster and faster." If the people in the mad forest that is now Bucharest feared change even as they wished for it, Churchill illustrates that they had good reason.

It's always seemed to me nearly impossible for an American theater company to fully realize a play about the sort of desperate political oppression found in other countries. How could even the most talented group understand--emotionally, mind you--a sort of oppression that's simply not found day to day in the American experience?

Remains Theatre has proved me wrong. Or maybe I'm right, and they've achieved the nearly impossible.

DIARY OF A MADMAN

Writer's Theatre-Chicago
at Cafe Voltaire

A civil servant in czarist Russia, Nikolay Gogol's all-too-human madman escapes his drab existence by indulging in wild flights of fantasy, most of them revolving around his director's beautiful daughter. When he's forced to abandon the Illusion that someday she'll return his affections, his fantasies become darker and more serious, dissolving finally into paranoia and delusions of grandeur that threaten to consume him and his gray, ordered life.

In this Writer's Theatre-Chicago production of Diary of a Madman (adapted by Elliott Hays), one relates at once to this simple, agonized soul. In his 45-minute monologue as the madman, Jerry Baggot has the manner and strange appeal of an anxious rabbit; every time reality threatens, we see a moment of raw panic from him--for a split second he seems to sniff the air--then he takes refuge behind some grand new illusion. And when from the depths of his being he cries out against the injustices done to him--"Why am I a filing clerk?"--it's a desolate call to anyone who's ever felt life to be some sort of deadly trap.

Under Michael Halberstam's direction, Baggot's transition from a mildly eccentric civil servant whose most telling weakness is his enthusiasm for the theater to a lunatic who believes he's the King of Spain is nicely paced. Although we know his madness is inevitable, the journey is intriguing. And Gogol's sense of humor is used here to great advantage: we're never dragged into a swamp of hopelessness. Near the end of the monologue Halberstam does allow Baggot to indulge in pathos to the limit, which makes for an uncomfortable few minutes where the performer may be feeling more sympathy for the character than the audience is. But a strong final image partly redeems this lapse, and even transcends the flip reggae song with which Halberstam has chosen to close the show.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kim Soren Larsen.

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