This year’s annual theatre festival in Cluj-Napoca was a showcase for several of the productions of the Teatrul Național – the city’s National Theatre – that opened during the spring and early summer season 2023. Announced as reflecting the theme of “mirrors”, virtually every theatre show from 12 to 15 October either reflected or doubled images (although not in the sense used by Antonin Artaud). Avoiding portrayal of current social issues, they have an oneiric quality. I am left with the impression that these productions speak of a cultural environment in transition.
I began reporting on Romanian theatre in Cluj-Napoca in 2018 for the Centennial Theatre festival. Then, plays referencing the terrors of the era of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s rule were interspersed with great national dramas like the 1927 play Master Manole (Meșterul Manole) by Lucien Blaga which was set in a Romania ruled by monarchs.
Last year, in 2022, when the theme was identity, plays referencing the invasion of Ukraine and #MeToo dramas prevailed. Now, I see a kaleidoscope of semi-experimental dramas that push against textual authority and favour an inalienable right to self-expression. What this portends I cannot say, but it is my responsibility as a theatre critic to ask why the Romanian author-directors represented in the festival have opted to retreat from the battlefields of life. Is it again due to that scary Romanian word frică (fear) as in “Let’s pretend the enemy is not there” or is it an updated version of Romanian absurdism – a bit like Pooh Bear singing that he is a cloud to mitigate the risk of him being identified by bees as a bear?
The highlight of the festival was the staging of Molière’s Amphitryon by the internationally acclaimed Romanian director Silviu Purcărete. The production was not listed as a Regietheater interpretation and was relatively faithful to the original 1668 text. I was assured by good judges that the translators Victor Eftimiu and Petre Manoliu had rendered the French rhymed couplets into beautiful Romanian.
Purcărete nonetheless shifts the focus of the drama away from Molière’s emphasis on the eventual birth of Hercules through the intervention of the god Jupiter, which to a certain extent reiterates the story of the Immaculate Conception. In this production, the carnal nature of infidelity is emphasized. Amphitryon (Matai Rotaru) witnesses his wife Alcmena (Sânziana Tarța) in the throes of passion and is confronted with his double – an actor, Ionuț Caras, who is in similar dress and with similar pink cheeks but taller and well, different – who usurps his position totally, even in his own eyes. Of course, being the Roman god Jupiter, the imposter can brainwash any mortal into thinking he is identical to the person he is impersonating. Mercury, who is Jupiter’s son and also a god, has this ability too.
Mercury (Cristian Grosu) is able to appear identical to Sosie even if he also is not of identical appearance. So, philosophical exchanges become visual gags. For example, Sosie’s speeches on being both himself and not himself in Molière, which are usually delivered as comic lines, are abbreviated in this version – or so I presume since I was reliant on a translation into English to follow along. But certainly, the philosophical implications of us seeing two sets of non-identical personages being treated as identical by all and sundry was of greater importance than gags about being a doubled self or, to employ the key word of this festival, a mirror self.
Another unusual feature of Purcărete’s version is that Alcmena’s castle quarters are occupied by 11 decadent retainers who also function as a chorus; they are certainly not a part of Molière’s play but their chanting derives from Plautus’s. They chant comments and angry remonstrance, and they retire to feast in a banquet hall seen at the rear of the stage where the final scene (during which Jupiter reveals himself) takes place downstage.
Sânziana Tarța as Alcmena, Matei Rotaru as Amphitryon, Diana-Ioana Licu as Chorus, Romina Merei as Night, Ionuț Caras as Jupiter, Cosmin Stănilă as Chorus, Cristian Grosu Mercu as Amphitryon in Amphytrion.
Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.
It is rare that the actor in a piece discusses their experience of a production from the point of view of audience members, but this is the case with Ionuț Caras (appearing again – an amazingly protean actor!) when he describes how he approached the dramatic reading of two of Pirandello’s short stories: La Carriola (The Wheelbarrow) and Soffio (A Breath).
Caras watches his audience to see how they are reacting to the words he recites – we are, in fact, the reason why he is on stage. He’s not performing a monologue to please himself. The skill and self-control he possesses as an actor were shown at full value when a mobile phone rang during the performance I saw, and he relaxed into a standstill, one arm extended and in character, until silence reigned again.
Interestingly, these Pirandello works, grouped under the title The Black Mirror, are not entirely a one-man show; Caras has a director, Roberto Bacci. In a question and answer session after the play, Caras confessed to being reluctant to take on the challenge of performing these Pirandello stories as he thought they would bore an audience, but Bacci convinced him otherwise. It is true that endurance is required of both actor and audience to last the pound-of-words we are fed in a tale that is weird and more philosophical than dramatic.
Starting with The Wheelbarrow, the story is of an “I”, a man who furthermore is a successful lawyer and a père de famille, who becomes aware suddenly that the image of him that floats out there in the world of inter-human commerce, is not at all related to his authentic self. To overcome the feeling that he has no intrinsic identity, he forces his dog to walk around his study once a day on its front legs while he holds the back legs as if the animal were a wheelbarrow.
This having been recited, Caras jumps immediately into A Breath which describes how a man learns that he possesses an extraordinary talent: he kills any human being on whom he breathes gently through two fingers of his right hand linked so as to form an oval. The man of the first Pirandello story has mutated into a monster, perhaps because he has taken individuality too far. The parallel with the viral contagion we all have recently passed through (and may continue to experience) is hovering in the air but is not explicit, thus supporting my impression that these dramas at the 2023 festival are avoiding direct confrontation with current events.
Ionuț Caras in A Breath.
Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.
Backstage life mirrors the glamour and intensity of acting on the front-facing side of the stage in the hands of Ovidiu Crişan as The Boss and Sorin Misirianţu as Cornel, two backstage workers in a dark theatre preparing the set for an imminent performance. The Stagehands (Mașiniștii) by the Romanian George Lungoci and directed by Dragoș Pop is a delightful play. It is reminiscent of Old Clown Wanted (Angajare de Clovn) by Matei Vişniec in its poignancy, direct humour and uncomplicated action or story line – and no small wonder as Crişan and Misirianţu acted in the Vişniec play when it was staged in 2018 and Misirianţu directed it.
Both stagehands, each dressed in appealing grey overalls with yellow tool pouches (signed ‘Cristian Rusu’) reflect on the quality of an actress they have recently seen performing and confess to their original desires to become actors. The Boss performs an extemporaneous monologue taken from Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker which was his auditioning piece for acting school (he wasn’t admitted) and Cornel offers advice on The Boss’s style of delivery, warming to the role of director – and so it is revealed the the two know a great deal about the art of acting and the art of pleasing an audience. But acting requires being willing to be naked on stage, Cornel reminds his colleague. Clearly, neither relishes that. And so they proudly state that “There would be no theatre without us. We make fog, smoke or fire.” They conclude that they love their jobs as backstage workers, and so the mirror reflects clearly, with no distortion.
Ovidiu Crișan as The Boss and Sorin Misirianțu as Cornel in Stagehands.
Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.
The Untamed Shrew (SCORPIA NEÎMBLÂNZITĂ) is a confused hodgepodge of pro-and anti-feminist thought (including, for instance, an oddly placed reference to female “internalized misogyny”), derived apparently from terms circulating on social media; audience participation; stage dialogue about the inner workings of a theatre, its rehearsals, its backstage technical staff and an occasional movement forward in what might be traditionally called plot that includes – in the second half of the production – actual lines from the original Shakespeare play, masquerading as an experimental piece by a young allegedly feminist director. However, the audience seemed to love it, and there was a standing ovation at its conclusion.
Personally, I consider the production a misadventure, with the actors representing the women in charge of the entire show being systematically portrayed as incompetent, distracted and hysterical (yes, that archaic word was used in both Romanian and the superb simultaneous translation into English provided by Ozana Oancea). The plot is that the play is a Zoom production being transmitted live to the Schaubühne, Berlin, and that a cascade of difficulties prevented transmission on time. This with a hint of nationalistic wisecracking, in that the filmmaker/director with her film camera on its tripod in the midst of the auditorium’s central isle worries about keeping the Germans waiting – they are reputed to be obsessed by punctuality (or such is the myth).
Old tricks saturate the piece, bogging it down into a rehash of unrelated problematics and dehumanized characters. An usher (Patricia Brad) grows choleric because an obviously planted audience member (Adrian Cucu), supposedly drunk, enters the auditorium without proffering a ticket and takes the first empty seat he finds. This invasion is handled in the most unreal way possible – no calming of the usher, no efficient conflict resolution but rather an infinitely protracted arrhythmic fluttering of the female leadership searching for no solutions at all. The scene has no dramatic objective. The usher apparently is a stickler about collecting tickets (Cucu has one in his pocket the whole time) but instead of developing her character in advance of this scene we get unconvincing “spontaneity”. For instance, the usher could have had a brief altercation earlier on with an audience member who had been slow to hand over their ticket. And so it goes, through the entire play where artificially exaggerated issues like a momentary failed transmission problem stops the show and produces a dramatically meaningless chaos that is always women’s doing.
And this is the crux of the entire misdirection of the piece. The wrong techniques are used to advance supposedly feminist perspectives. In the festival handbook, playwright director Leta Popescu asks, “Is ‘the taming’ a courtship ritual or an attempt to ‘dehumanize’ the woman”? Are these two possibilities really the opposite of one another? Can Kate being starved by Petruchio be classified even remotely as a wooing strategy?
The play is not about taming as a cute game but about how one person who has been vested with authority, the male, lays siege on a second (female) person’s body, thereby effecting a change of demeanour in the besieged female. The pre-nuptial taming is an allegorical pre-emptive action representative of chauvinistically-conceived sexual union, and in Kate’s altered state of consciousness due to hunger and fatigue (as would be the case in a state of post-coital bliss) it matters little if the heavenly body she and Petruchio both see in the sky is a moon or a sun. The proper question for a director to ask of Shakespeare’s drama is why is Kate’s intellectually unyielding personality softened by means that torture – or at least discomfort – her physically?
The final insult, in my opinion, is at the conclusion of the production when what appears to be a plaster cherub detaches from an ornately decorated loge or perhaps from the proscenium stage wall itself. The lovely gilded cherub bounces smartly instead of exploding in an exciting display of plaster of Paris, depriving us of that one last straw of hope for a bit of authenticity.
That being said, the colourful costumes in coordinated tones of pink brick, blue, and yellow (designer Bogdan Spătaru) and the acting of the straightforward Katherine (Kate) by Cecilia Lucanu-Donat who came across as not particularly feminine nor particularly masculine and seemed to be simply a person in an oversized shawl and eyeglasses or in jeans along with her mate Petruchio (Cosmin Stănilă) who is mild and endearing and does an excellent mime of a galloping horse using his hands and thighs, help to keep this Untamed Shrew afloat.
Sânziana Tarța as Ana, Diana Buluga as Ruxandra and Adrian Cucu as Sergiu in Untamed Shrew.
Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.
Dona Juana is a curious work of dramatic art by Radu Stanca involving two actors who represent five characters: Don Juan, Dona Juana, Don Juan’s servant, Dona Juana’s servant, and Death. It has been brought to life by the National Theatre’s director Tudor Lucanu who also designed the set that puts the action within four Plexiglas walls so that the audience is always remote from the action, and conversely the actors inside the box are unable to see outside when the lights are on. Nor can they hear the audience, which reinforces the actors intuiting the isolation their characters suffer from.
Dona Juana is the most captivating of women, sought out constantly. Unable to love, she is never seduced. The man who peruses her the most – whom she considers to be “ugly” – tells her that if she can resist Don Juan, then he will leave her alone, but if she falls for Don Juan, then she must agree to marry him, the ugly one. Dona Juana accepts this challenge and meets Don Juan, played by Matei Rotaru. She does fall for him but is, in actuality, seduced by his servant. However, she admits that she believed it was Don Juan who had seduced her, so spiritually she says she has indeed been seduced by Don Juan. She agrees to marry the ugly man, but when they embrace, he – mask-free and very human looking – becomes Death, and she dies in his arms.
Dona Juana is experimental theatre. Actors wear thin white robes throughout and rely on the use of rubbery skin-coloured masks for character changes; the servants wear a distinguishing pendant. The cage in which these characters are caught is lined in blue velvet, and there is at least one mirroring half-wall placed at right angles to the set’s Plexiglas walls that helps double and reflect the characters. The lighting is extremely dim, and in fact it obscured a detail that the actress playing Dona Juana and her servant, Cecilia Lucanu-Donat, says is important: the velvet is sprinkled with oversized pills. Apparently, Lucanu directed the play as if the scenes were taking place in Dona Juana’s mind during the last moments of her life after she committed suicide through an overdose of pills, presumably sleeping pills.
Cecilia Lucanu-Donat and Matei Rotaru in Dona Juana.
Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.
About Drakeshead (Capul de rățoi), a play from 1938 by the Romanian writer George Ciprian, I am able to say nothing. The piece has to do with internal Romanian politics, legends, and folklore. Despite my listening to a simultaneous translation of the words into English, I was unable to follow the action. The play is surrealist and is considered a fine example of Romanian surrealism, a style that is rare here.
The cast in Drakeshead.
Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.
The concluding dramatic event of this year’s international theatre festival of the National Theatre of Cluj-Napoca fits extraordinarily well into my impression that this year’s directors are retreating from confronting current threats to democracy and peace.
Shamanic Songs/The Quest is the sort of performance once frequently staged in varying forms during the alternative culture movement stretching from approximately 1968 to 1975. It is “far out”, with the actors enacting self-calming rituals and singing songs to invoke and sustain (a feeling of) peace. With the twirling of the actors on stage, The Quest follows the Sufi inspired goal of reaching Nirvana in the tradition of the Whirling Dervishes of Konya, which is not surprising given that the director Çağlar Yiğitoğulları is of Turkish origin. The structure of the piece, involving setting on a quest and passing through seven stages, is taken from the Persian poem The Conference of the Birds by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar.
This is also the one production that is in the tradition of The Theatre and its Double, a theory of performance from 1938 propounded by Antonin Artaud, in that sounds and cries that verbalize emotions without the intermediary of structured language, and music that promotes trancelike states, are integral aspects of the performance – along with incense, smoke, and varying light intensities. The theme is captured in the first moment when Yiğitoğulları enters the rectangular space between audience gradins which is the Euphorion Studio’s stage, to repeatedly state, “It hurts but it is beautiful” as he spins his head back and forth so quickly that his jaws click and we see a whir of movement. He calls the style of the piece “Shaman-Punk”.
The costumes designed by Tudor Lucanu appear to be cut from sackcloth, and there is some nudity. In all, perhaps it is the ensemble of eight of the theatre’s actors who are the most affected by playing in a performance piece that relies on chalk messages and vocalized emotional and meditative states to reach its apotheosis, but in addition their otherworldly visions are meant to have a contagious effect on the sitting, watching audience as well. But unfortunately we were an audience already predisposed to responding positively to hints of extrasensory perception. Perhaps it would do the world some good if a session of the United Nations commenced with a performance of Shamanic Songs/The Quest?
Sânziana Tarța, Cristian Rigman and Radu Dogaru in The Quest.
Photo credit: Nicu Cherciu.
The International Meetings in Cluj concluded with a concert by the Balanescu Quartet. Throughout the four days, there were book launches (for instance, DaDa Putting on a Show by Ştefana Pop-Curşeu, Ioan Pop- Curşeu and Ion Pop) and meetings to discuss the performances and hear from the actors, directors and designers.