Theatre in Cluj-Napoca, Romania
1 December 2018
Dana Rufolo reports on this year’s  Centennial Theatre Festival which celebrates Romanian literature and warns of the need for vigilance.
The National Theatre of Bucharest and other theatres in Romania in addition to the National Theatre of Cluj-Napoca have hosted productions to celebrate the Romanian Centennial this year, but this magazine has a long-standing special relationship with the city of Cluj-Napoca, and so it is this theatre’s centennial celebration which provides the background to the present dossier on Romanian dramatic art. The internationally acclaimed Professor Robert Cohen (from the University of California at Irvine), one of Plays International & Europe‘s critic correspondents, published a series of articles on theatre in Cluj for our predecessor magazine Plays International. These articles appeared in the magazine between 2006 and 2011. They have been collected into a book edited by Anca Măniuțiu and published under the title A Director’s Theatre. The Romanian Theatre from an American Perspective / Un Teatru al Regizorului. Teatrul românesc văzut de un american (Casa Cărţii de Ştiinţă: Cluj-Napoca, 2017) which gives a foundation to this report on the contemporary Romanian theatre scene.
The extremely well-organized Romanian theatre festival hosted by Mihai Măniuțiu and Ştefana Pop-Curşeu, directors of the National Theatre in Cluj, entitled Visions (Viziuni) that ran from October 9 through October 14 of this year  was specifically, but not exclusively, devoted to productions of Romanian national theatre pieces. It was held to honour a hundred years of Romanian nationality; the greater union of Romania and Transylvania was signed into law on December 1, 1918 (and reinforced under the Treaty of Trianon of 1920). In effect, the festival week highlighted productions of classical Romanian plays or dramatized narrative poems on its impressive Cluj-Napoca National Theatre’s main stage (1,000 seats in the audience of which 940 are used) with elements of nostalgia and mysticism in them which we call the Romanian past. There was an additional category of play, usually staged with less elaboration in the theatre’s studio setting, of politically committed plays. The majority of these were by Romanian authors; there was one by a Polish author. There were also two international productions directed by Mihai Măniuțiu, one of these being at the city’s Hungarian Theatre (Teatrul Maghiar de Stat Cluj), which featured European playwrights. An accompanying interview with Măniuțiu can be found here.
I personally was most attracted by the political plays, as they are the ones that export the best. They did not use novel production styles, not even the Brechtian style associated with European political theatre nor anything like the street theatre style of August Boal or the physical theatre style of, say, the San Francisco Mime Troupe in its heyday, and this resulted in a loss of dramatic intensity. However, the issues of corruption, immigration and psychological or political oppression, even if founded on local or national incidents, have, as I say, far-reaching international echoes. The Reactor Theatre gave two productions during the festival; both of which used a frontal presentation style that requires a minimum of scenographic elements and is more dramatized narrative than drama. One of these plays, The Miracle of Cluj, talked us through the terrible post-Ceausescu scam invented by a naïve Romanian who believed that money could miraculously multiply; thousands of Romanians entrusted their life’s savings to his scheme which merely collected and did not reinvest that wealth but maintained the semblance of prosperity by rewarding only a few with significant financial gains; for the others there were no reparations when the investment scam fell apart. Ironically, the scheme’s inventor was himself a relatively honest person who had not expressly exploited his fellow Romanians.
The other Reactor Theatre play, going alternatively by the title M.I.S .Understanding (M.I.S.A PĂRUT) was a radical political play that the company themselves labelled a “social play”. It took stock of the residual fear still lurking in the Romanian population after being controlled by communism and dictatorship. For this reason, because the theme of my article is how this festival, knowingly or – even more likely – unknowingly, grapples with the issue of residual fear, I am reviewing the play in detail.
Cast of M.I.S. Understanding (M.I.S.A. PĂRUT). Photo credit: Bristena.
As was the case for The Miracle of Cluj, we in the audience were up close to the action, our flimsy metal chairs balancing around a flat acting surface. Four young actors in identical simple tunic costumes, two men and two women, moved about from within an open-framed rectangular box on wheels that contained a microphone. The rear of this box frame, which was large enough to comfortably house a single actor, was equipped with an opaque window shade that was normally out of sight but could be pulled down to hide the actors when they turned their backs towards the audience. The actors moved their boxes by walking them into new configurations; that was the only action on stage.
The story these four actors dramatized in a semi-improvisational style pounded away at our sense of complacency. The unnatural, paranoid world they describe to us is oppressive in a way that Boal never imagined; there was not even a ray of hope to lighten the burden of distortions of truth and betrayals of humankind implicit in the narrative about Ana Boeriu, a “naughty” girl who is a “vegetarian” and a practitioner of “yoga”.
Her family, in particular her mother, is not only her other but her torturer, so much so that it was not long before I understood that the material parental figure acts as a stand-in for an unsympathetic authority that uses stereotypes of intimidation to impose its will. (Parental figures who break with their contemporary representation as benevolent and instead reinforce the notion of the parent as brutally authoritarian, most accessible to those of us in the West from Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, occur frequently in plays featured at this festival.)
It all begins in seeming normality. Secondary-school aged Ana suffers the usual adolescent moodiness and confusions of motivation. Already her mother is portrayed as overbearing and punishing. Ana is an only child, and her low grades at school prompt constant nagging and physical aggression, especially since testing has revealed her to have a “superior” IQ of 120. Anna finds respite in joining a yoga class associated with the (Romania-based) MISA ashram.
As of now, the play is full-fledged political theatre. The four actors embody the Romanian public’s reaction to news that the ashram’s leader has preyed sexually upon girls in his tutelage. This was indeed the case in the MISA scandal in Romania; however as far as I could tell the abuse was not practised in every yoga centre and was not even widespread. In case I misinterpreted the surtitles, I asked Romanian spectators at the play, and it does seem that in the drama, as indeed in the story upon which the drama is based, that Ana was genuinely learning yoga and no more. However, with the television promulgating MISA to be a sect – this word was hissed by one of the actors during the narrated introduction to the action – and her parents looking at TV “to see in whose hands (their daughter Ana) is” rather than sitting down to dialogue with their daughter – a long saga of domination and control is initiated. Ana is repeatedly kidnapped by her parents, who subject her to psychiatric intervention and to their local priest’s admonitions. The oppressive pressure on her never stops. It is framed as a loving concern for Ana. It is “like war”.
At this point I believe the playwright Alexa Băcanu wishes to remind the spectators of the clash of thousands of protesters and police in Bucharest on 10 August 2018, but the plot is even more insidious: it has to do with the total destruction of the Ana person – her body and her personality. We in the audience can only react emotionally as we are provided with no clear-headed distancing device to keep out of the waves of destructive irrationality that pursue Ana as she is prevented from marrying the man who loves her (supposedly because he is a lot older than she is which, again, is not “normal”) by being re-subjected to psychiatric imprisonment, her thoughts and movements controlled by the antipsychotic drug Leponex, administered under force. This drug is so violent that Ana now risks never giving birth to a normal child, so her body (and, symbolically, the future) is permanently compromised. Finally discharged by the psychiatric institution, aged 20, Ana is at last “free”; her fiancé has remained loyal, and so she departs with him, her final words being “only now it begins to hurt”.
A brilliant strategy of the director Dragoș Alexandru Mușoiu is to use all four of the actors as duplicates whose gestures and voices mingle in a series of repeated sounds and tones, so the story is always being enacted by all the actors on stage. Additionally compelling was the decision to have Ana played sometimes by one of the female actors, sometimes by one of the men.
Romina Merei as Mira in Master Manole. Photo credit: Raluca Ciornea.
M.I.S. Understanding paints a bleak picture of disabling trauma, gossip on the level of national television, and disintegration of trust among family members. It portrays, above all, a mad hankering after a retro concept of the “normal” (Ana’s supposed loss of virginity becomes a parental threnody woven throughout the staged narrative). It implies that decades of dictatorship and characterization have left their mark on the Romanian public. It was the Festival’s opening production. The second production, Old Clown Wanted (Angajare de Clovn) by the internationally acclaimed Romanian/French playwright Matei Vişniec and directed by the Romanian Sorin Misirianțu did not dissipate this impression.
Old Clown Wanted is a nostalgia play. Three elderly, retired clowns gather in a backstage space of an audition hall in the hope of finding work. They are answering the call for an audition from some unnamed agency desiring to hire one old clown. They know one another and have worked together in the past; they even love one another but are prepared to fight or betray since obliged to compete. The director has the play begin in a similarly anxiety-inspiring world as that portrayed in M.I.S. Understanding: we spectators at the Cluj National Theatre’s Euphorion Studio waited in pitch darkness for the play to begin for an unreasonably long time. Then, a single clown entered the barely-lit stage floor space and immediately communicated to us his feelings of claustrophobia. The access doors to interior parts of the theatre were locked and nobody replied when he banged on them; the space was filling up with a choking foggy substance of some kind, and he struggled to breathe. His fear was contagious – several audience members also started to cough although the foggy substance on stage never actually reached us.
The importance of this play is that it has a true dramatic progression, marking it as a genuinely mature work of theatre by this remarkable playwright, who is also French, Vişniec having lived in Paris since he moved there from Bucharest before the 1989 revolution in search of political freedom. He was present during the festival; a second play of his On the Sensation of Resilience When Treading on Dead Bodies (Despre senzația de elasticitate cînd pășim peste cadavre) – the highlight of the entire festival in my opinion – was also featured, and he held a talk on “Romanian theatre in the year of the centennial” with the most revered of Romania’s living actors (and former Minister of culture) Ion Caramitru.
His anxiety subsiding, this first clown (Filippo played by Ioan Isaiu) is suddenly confronted with the arrival of Niccolo (Ovidiu Crișan), a retired Clown with whom he had worked decades back. They immediately square off as rivals, Filippo boasting about all his recent good luck which is clearly a lie – even offering a newspaper clipping as “proof that they laughed” – and Niccolo accusing him of alcoholism; gradually the hostility subsides and they recall their former gigs together which results in delightful repartee where they run through a gamut of gags in the many languages of the countries they toured in and provoking laughter from the audience when they mention having been in a Silviu Purcărete show in Limoges (Purcărete is perhaps the best known Romanian director; his Danaides in New York in 1995 initiated an international admiration for the Romanian director’s theatre). This play from 1986 is set in a time before Romania joined the European Union in the most recent wave of expansion of its member states in 2007 and before Romanians were permitted the rights to work in other EU countries as of 1 January 2014, as is clear from both clowns musing that “Europe is closed” to them, that they can only find work “on the margins”.
Old Clown Wanted ends on a positive note that is rare in the dramas I saw staged during the festival. The three clowns bond once they collectively recollect the heady joy performing once gave each of them. They also recognize their shared misery at being poor, cast-off, and unwanted. When at last a voice over the loudspeaker calls for a clown to present himself for the audition, each of them instinctively initiates a movement to rush forward, but then the three halt in an arrested pose, each hugging his suitcase and waiting. The desire to compete has vanished; they are bound by solidarity one to the other. Director Sorin Misirianțu revealed his sensitivity to both the human and the political meanings in the script with this powerful final tableau.
Matei Rotaru and Patricia Brad in On the Sensation of Resilience When Treading
on Dead Bodies. Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.
A second play by Matei Vişniec was an even more complex weave of Romanian trauma and the antidote – a capacity to find distance, humour, and wisdom that counteracts the harm of unforgotten memories through art, in this case dramatic art. On the Sensation of Resilience When Treading on Dead Bodies, directed by Răzvan Muresan, brilliantly introduces the character of the Bald Soprano (la cantice chauve) who in fact never appears in the play of that title by the Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco. In a full-length costume designed by Ilona Lőrincz, Patricia Brad plays the character with an ethereal calm and flowing movements that make her appear to be floating on air. She is the one to offer resilience in a world which resembles all too closely the life under dictatorship that every Romanian who reached the age of awareness before 1989 is sure to remember; betrayals, torture, and arbitrary punishment. The stage is occasionally peopled with other Ionesco characters too: rhinoceroses from Rhinoceros and the student from The Lesson. Indeed in his talk, Vişniec identified the Romanian theatre of the communist era – of which group this play is a part – as a source of “resistance” with its “hidden metaphors”: “theatre was an island of hope in a sea of despair”.
The main character of the play is The Poet, played by Matei Rotaru as a careless liquor-guzzling anti-hero type who is a member of the communist-run writers club and has been imprisoned for translating Eugene Ionesco into Romanian. Although his powers of imagination support him and he survives imprisonment, still this world of arbitrary viciousness is what all the dead bodies of the title refer to.
There are moments of exquisite theatre when the prisoners, The Poet among them, bang on their tin dishes using their spoons as drumsticks, as they participate in staging the chiming of the clock in the Ionesco play that he recounts to them. Why these scenes are so effective is because the screws holding together these tin objects sometimes become loose, and then we see the prisoners scramble to recover some part of the dishware. They are sloppy characters, reminiscent of the “good soldier” Švejk, not at all romantic heroes. Suddenly in the context of On the Sensation of Resilience When Treading on Dead Bodies, the absurdity which makes the original Ionesco play seem fashionably cute when shown in Paris or America turns into deadly seriousness as references to English time and English food are traded in for midnight prisoner wake-up calls and the reference to “Romanian” cabbage soup, reminding us that even such supposedly universal things as time or food can acquire political and national meanings.
Other contemporary theatre pieces included Letters From the Front (Scrisori de pe Front), a moving reading of letters between soldiers and their families or loved ones during World War One. This devised performance ended in the readers climbing onto the long narrow table that all the spectators sat around and walking towards each other from opposite ends. During their journey, they tread on entire armies and military machines; for the table had been set in battle scenes using toy soldiers and other objects found in war zones, all in miniature.
I will finish this report on contemporary pieces by briefly discussing a Polish play by Sławomir Mrożek about the dog’s life of immigrants that the Romanians have embraced as an accurate portrait of their own immigrant experiences. Translated as The Emigrants (Emigrantii) the play is set in the basement space delineated by the door, two makeshift beds, and a hotplate, shelves and a water bucket for water from a wall tap (designer Cristian Rusu). All the pipes of the building run through this meagre apartment, and they rumble and clank constantly.
Mrożek cleverly created contrasting personalities for the two characters in the play, both of whom are immigrants living in an unnamed European country. In this production, the talented actors play these differences to the hilt – different gaits, body postures, speech rhythms and mannerisms. AA (Matei Rotaru) had been a peasant in Poland and is used to manual labour; he is working to collect money for his family to build a house. He has the best lines in the play when he complains about the absence of flies in their basement hole-in-the-wall and nostalgically describes the flypaper that hung in his parents’ house back home, buzzing and swaying with its massive stuck but still living flies. AA stores his earnings in a stuffed animal and keeps his costs to an absolute low, in part by sponging from XX (Tudor Lucanu, who also directs this two-hander). XX is an intellectual who was well educated back in Poland: he seems to have money and his motivations are unclear; he appears to have no ties or family back in Poland. The two men live together like dogs (at one point, AA, extremely hungry, opens a can he bought because it was cheap, but XX –who also cannot read the label but sees the picture of a happy dog on it and understands that it is dog food – struggles to convince him that the gelatinous contents are not fit for human consumption) and bicker endlessly, but the pull of their common national origins overcomes their differences.
It is New Year’s Eve, and the two drink themselves into a depression. XX asserts that AA will never ever return home, and AA shakes out his collection of euros and rips them into shreds. XX cries over a single letter he has kept from back home.
The play functions brilliantly as a plea for compassion and tolerance of immigrants. Without falling into sentimentality, it conveys the reality of immigrants’ daily life, their abject poverty and endless inventiveness in solving the problems that the beset them. It ought to be staged all over the world in towns where autochthonous populations are hostile to the immigrants living and working there.
The playlets comprising Love Stories at First Sight was a well staged if somewhat static showcase for the work of five of the best known Romanian authors: Gabriel Liiceanu, Adriana Bittel, Iona Pârvulescu, Radu Paraschivescu, and Ana Blandiana. In the discussion afterwards, many of the authors expressed discontent with the dramatized version of the stories, revealing once again that the transformation from page to stage is always fraught with difficulties, a fact well known, if not always skilfully sold, by those promoting Regietheater.
Matei Rotaru and Tudor Lucanu in The Emigrants. Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.
For anybody reading this dossier because of an interest in the history of Romanian theatre, the production of Master Manole (Meșterul Manole) holds a place of honour. This was a reworking of the original 1927 play by Lucien Blaga by director Andrei Măjeri and is, according to the festival organizers, “a variant of a tale spread through the Balkans and beyond”. It is an achingly slow-moving relentlessly tragic drama about the sacrifice of master-builder Manole’s wife to construct a church and, in its mystical fashion, touches on the big questions surrounding psychology, faith, and victimization. As befits a play of such monumental importance, the scene design by Mihai Păcurar and the costumes by Lucian Broscățean were elaborate, beautiful, and even at times frighteningly symbolic.
In effect, Manole and his bricklayers have attempted to erect a hallowed orthodox church eighty-seven times in different parts of the Romanian landscape, but each and every time the walls collapsed. This present collapse dramatically had the “stones jumping back into their places in the earth”. There is only one way out of this sacrilege tells the mystic Abbott Bogumil, played with harsh authority by Ionuţ Caraş and that is to entomb a human sacrifice in the wall of the church. The vision is so acrid, the message so irrational, and yet we all know that inexorably it is Manole’s wife who will become the sacrificial victim. When early on in the play she jokingly stretches up her arms and pretends that she is holding up the church her husband spends so much time away from her to build, the foreshadowing is poignant. Played with the truthfulness of a child, Romina Merei as the wife Mira to the very end thinks her husband is only playing with her. She sings, she is fearless. But we in the audience are shocked into comprehending her dissolution into the stone walls where the faithful go to worship God. Because of a scenographic trick with pixels, generated by the QR codes on her costume (a flowing plastic-covered kimono-type gown composed of an infinity of black-and-white squares), when she is finally completely buried the wall comes alive with these squares which flutter like butterflies all over its surface, and the woman gradually vanishes. It is a striking image that is also extremely damning of men, since the question that I as a spectator had uppermost in my mind was why Manole chose to sacrifice her rather than find a radical alternative, like leaving or killing himself. Although not played by Sorin Leoveanu as a modern free-thinker but rather as one upon whom a raw form of existentialism has been forced, Manole seems to have been plagued by the same question. After the fact, and amid the ceremony and pomp of religious and state autocrats praising the completed church, he hurls himself to his death from the new church’s bell tower.
I cannot dwell on every production at the festival in this article so will briefly mention the two other productions featuring Romanian literature before turning to a more detailed description of one of the two internationally-inspired productions directed by Mihai Măniuțiu.
A second folkloric play with strong ties to Romanian cultural history and its own self-image is The Gypsiad (Tiganiada). A poem published in 1800 and labelled “mock-heroic” by its author Ion Budai-Deleanu, it was consolidated into a drama by Cătălin Ștefănescu. The gypsies represent all Romanians, apparently. They get involved in a war which they really have no interest in fighting; hunger is their constant complaint and they will go to any length to obtain food with a minimum of labour. They are rather like the grasshoppers in the famous tale, but there is no moral attached to the work and so there are no ants to chastise them. It is quite a playful work, cleverly staged in an attempt to keep a modern audience alert, with gypsy camps, as well as Hell and a monastery depicted. A highlight is the arrival of King Vlad, who later reappears as God on an enormous sleek motorcycle.
There was also the staging by Răzvan Mureșan of a novel read in school by every Romanian, Mateiu Caragiale’s Gallants of the Old Court (Craii de Curtea-Veche). It is an inter-war novel from 1929 that purportedly describes the louche behaviour of a decadent man who modern Romanians feel is aptly resurrected in the form of their present political leaders. The play was readily accessible only to Romanians, with the action remote due to it being set extremely far back on the stage and its progress resembling the structure of a novel rather than a play. For example, sites like the gambling hall and the brothel were visited in scene after scene, producing a heavy and open-ended, rather non-dramatic result.
Ovidiu Crișan, Sorin Misirianțu and Ioan Isaiu in Old Clown Wanted.
Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.
I asked Lars Harald Maagerø, Plays International & Europe‘s editorial assistant who is Norwegian, to search the history of Jon Fosse’s Rambuku and this is what he came up with: “Rambuku was first performed at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo in 2006. In Norway we have two written languages: Bokmål, which is used by approximately 90 percent of the population and Nynorsk which is used by approximately ten percent. Fosse uses the latter, and Det Norske Teatret is the national stage for Nynorsk, so it’s quite common that his plays are performed there”. The Cluj-Napoca National Theatre’s Artistic Director Mihai Măniuțiu directed this play which was translated by Daria Ioan. References to it are in the accompanying interview here.
The play is highly symbolic. As is typical of Fosse, it has minimal dialogue, and the few phrase clusters used are repeated at several moments during the unfolding of the drama. The two speaking actors, a stately couple, make it clear nearly from the start of the play that the Rambuku they dream of travelling to and on this very day is a sort of meeting with Death. It is “our last day, our last and our first”, the woman Her (Claudia leremia) tells Him (Ion Rizea). In Rambuku everything will be ideal, she is convinced, but the man continues to cling fast to his umbrella and to wear his bowler hat; he is less believing of the tropical paradise she describes in longing terms. A fine mist falls over them and over the dancers who are the most important scenic element in the production, and disembodied music circles all of us in an auditory sur-natural space.
This Rambuku is dance theatre, no doubt about it. The sixteen dancers include the choreographer, Andrea Gavriliu. Their movements were jagged and extreme modern dance, as if they were rocks bending out of shape because of internal pressures. And the scenography was strikingly original. Moment after moment, all parts of Adrian Damian’s stage space – left, right, up, down – and Lucian Moga’s lighting – was used to advantage unusual shapes but was never overly replete.
It is the ending, however, that catches the breath – and that because under a stage-rear scrim, the dancers and the actors pile up, naked. A silky sheen on their legs (due, as the accompanying interview here states, to residues from their dissolved costumes), gives them an ethereal look, and this led me to imagine I was witnessing a transformation from animal human to human angel, but the pile of naked bodies was topped off with Gavrilou bent backwards in a rough-and-tumble, careless look that I associate with countless images of the dead in concentration camps of World War Two and beyond. This powerful concluding image of death, oscillated between the sublime and the horrific, and although it was not drama in any traditional sense, this Rambuku was certainly a memorable staging of dramatic poetry.