Of myth and men

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  October 28, 2008

Lest you think docudrama rather than fantasia, I should mention the bear: a chubby, shambling, caramel-colored creature that comes ambling on to gorge on the pot of honey Tepes has slunk on stage bearing. Pawing the stuff into its gaping mouth (at the back of which lurks the face of Remo Airaldi), the animal becomes drunk or dazed; it falls; then it gets shot. Did Ceausescu (who fancied himself a hunter) shoot it? Is it Russia? And what is the significance of the dance at the end of the play in which the participants wear bits and pieces of the bear costume?

Got me. But the greater point would seem to be that history is as much theater as theater is. Many events of the play do not so much unfold as get staged. It’s when you lose control of the puppet strings — as Ceausescu and the lackey/spy known as the Functionary do when they try to manipulate the reactions of an unruly crowd to a speech by the leader — that you’re in trouble. Some of The Communist Dracula Pageant takes place simultaneously on stage and on video screens hung above it. Cameras are pushed on to record events, and in one long scene involving video technicians, a brutal event is invented.

Washburn’s bag of tricks is intellectually fascinating, but it’s a mixed bag. Too many of the proceedings — played out against little more than a few red flats, the TV screens, and a potted plant — are either cryptic or confusing. Even an educated Cambridge audience, familiar with the Romanian coup/revolution of ’89, won’t know all the players, some of whom seem interchangeable. It is implied toward the end that Ceausescu didn’t live long enough to meet the firing squad but that the show had to go on. Is this Washburn’s invention, in keeping with her theme?

As for the ART troupers, Thomas Derrah’s Ceausescu, crowned with as much pompadour as pomp, comes across as less mad than just iron-fisted. LeBow makes a lurid Tepes and somehow marries nervousness to threat as the Functionary. Karen MacDonald, a bullet-riddled Elena returning to admonish Romania that it will miss “the reassuring clucking of my presence” before limping off into the sunset, comes closest to realizing the play’s intended fusion of documentary and delusion.

Faith Healer is a beautiful piece of work. The Irish writer Brian Friel, soon to turn 80, has penned more-popular plays, among them the Tony-winning Dancing at Lughnasa. But the 1979 mosaic of monologues being revived by the Publick Theatre (at the BCA Plaza through November 22) is his masterpiece. The play centers on the itinerate Jesus of the title, an exiled Irishman wandering the small towns of Britain to lay on hands — with mixed results. Sometimes he cures people, sometimes he doesn’t. Not even he knows why this is, and the questions about whether he’s an artist or a “mountebank” hound him to cruelty and drink. “The fantastic Francis Hardy,” as he’s hailed on the tattered banner that serves as the play’s backdrop, has his tale told in the first person, as well as by long-suffering wife Grace and loyal manager Teddy, in this exquisitely wrought demonstration of the power of storytelling, the subjectivity of memory, and the heartlessness of love.

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