The Bottom Line
Inspired by the 1989 fall of Romania’s Ceauşescu regime and written in the heat of the aftermath, this panoramic epic of a people in turmoil remains pertinent and incisive.
Open Fist Theatre (runs through May 4)
René Millán, Katherine Griffith, Jennifer Hyacinth Schoch, Alla Poberesky, Joe Hulser, Brad Schmidt, Jessica Noboa, Jan Munroe, Patrick John Hurley, Nicola Hersh, Barbara Schofield, Allison Mattox, Pilar Alvarez, Ian Hamilton, Ryan Mulkay, James Ball
Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife were shot on Christmas Day, 1989. Within weeks, playwright Caryl Churchill () and her creative team are there working with students and meeting the people post-“revolution.” Rehearsals of begin the day after party crony Ion Iliescu overwhelmingly wins the first election, and the first performance occurs the same day anti-Iliescu demonstrators are forcibly crushed in Bucharest.
In the vein of epic political spectacle, a descendant both of Brecht and The Living Newspaper, paints a broad canvas across the narrow, elongated Open Fist stage: workers, students, dissidents, intellectuals, and the omnipresent secret police, the Securitate, for whom perhaps a third of the population served as informers. In three parts, it shows portraits of before, during and after the street revolt that brought down the regime. A young woman engaged to an American must wait years for a passport while her entire family is either blacklisted or blackmailed. Her sister cannot marry her intended because of the family’s stain of suspicion. Everyone labors under a yoke of justifiable paranoia, either weighted with disgust at their inability to protest or rationalizing their moral compromises with slogans and apathy. Through many quick, deft sketches, Churchill conjures an oppressed society, less with character development than with a complex vision of the quandaries of quotidian life without options determined by the State.
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After news of the massacres at Timosoara and after the arrest of a priest spread through the capital despite media suppression, each gesture of defiance emboldens another, as insurrection becomes contagious. The confusion and chaos of the four days of shooting during which the Army abandons him and Ceauşescu flees are vividly conveyed through trenchant, fleeting particulars. Churchill remarkably does not oversimplify the action, imparting an extraordinary amount of detail with confident economy.
Then, in the aftermath, questions linger, effectively expressed by a delirious victim of a head wound, who despite lapses compulsively makes a rational case for possible conspiracies. These issues of what really happened continue unresolved nearly 25 years on, a testament to the durability of Churchill’s insights into the events. Romania is now a member of NATO and the European Union, but was 1989 in any sense a true revolution? And in light of the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the more recent misnomer of the Arab Spring, the meaning of the Romanian uprising persists in powerful relevance. This play born of immediacy has stayed immediate.
With so many characters, scenes and complicated action and narrative, would be daunting for the resources of any establishment company. That Open Fist has done so transporting a job is a tribute to the uniformly game cast (struggling accents and all) and to the singular directorial vision of Marya Mazor, who orchestrates its intricacies with unflagging forward energy and clarity, assisted in particular by the sinuous scenic design of the peerless Richard Hoover, who manages to suggest an aptly stolid architectural rigidity while permitting limitless flexibility of movement for the actors in history’s pageant.