Imagining Brave Futures

Imagining Brave Futures: Review of Plays from Romania: Dramaturgies of Subversion, translated and edited by Jozefina Komporaly

by Amanda L. Andrei

We have to do this, otherwise the beetle creeps into your head, and you’ll end up a blockhead. You don’t want to end up a blockhead.

Plays from Romania: Dramaturgies of Subversion, edited and translated by Jozefina Komporaly. Methuen Drama, October 2021, 352 pages, $34.95. ISBN: 9781350214286

There’s a shift in understanding a play when reading a script versus seeing a production. My reader’s mind goes into director mode, visualizing the myriad ways actors or designers could shape the text, what sort of stage I would want to see the action unfold. And as a diasporic playwright, I am hungry for contemporary plays in translation. Reading translated plays allows a theatremaker to reimagine the possibilities of our medium outside of our own cultures and perspectives, to wonder about the historical and linguistic forces that would influence design and directorial choices. For folks outside of the theatre world, I imagine that reading translated plays offers an exciting challenge to their own reading and writing, a chance to consider how scenes of only dialogue drive a story or create passion, how characters go to extremes due to desires and circumstance. 

Plays from Romania: Dramaturgies of Subversion features six plays (nine, if you separate the modular Stories of the Body) by Mihaela Panainte (after Herta Müller), Matéi Visniec, György Dragomán, András Visky, and the Giuvlipen Theatre Company, edited and translated by Jozefina Komporaly. Not only is each play subversive in content, language, and form, but the juxtaposition of plays—the anthology as a whole—is a curation that destabilizes perspectives of Romania as a dark, backwards country while simultaneously rebuilding and reintroducing perspectives of Romanian theatre as multicultural, multilingual, and very much aware of oppression from the past and present. In this collection, Romania’s theatre traditions are seen to go well beyond the legacy of communism or the margins of empires toward a vibrant, genre-bending practice that interrogates history, human nature, and the future. 

Lowlands, the first play in the collection, is a stage adaptation by Mihaela Panainte of German-writing author Herta Müller’s censored short stories, featuring a child narrating short scenes of daily life in a remote Swabian village in western Romania. The imagery is strong and disturbing, bouncing between characters caught in the intergenerational conflict of an impoverished community:

NARRATOR: A beetle crawled into my ear. Grandfather poured some alcohol in my ear, to make sure the beetle didn’t get into my head. I cried.

GRANDFATHER: We have to do this, otherwise the beetle creeps into your head, and you’ll end up a blockhead. You don’t want to end up a blockhead. You mustn’t eat acacia blossoms, they contain black midges and if these get into your throat, you’ll end up dumb. You don’t want to end up a blockhead.

NARRATOR: Caterpillars have once been butterflies, they emerge from their cocoons. They leave a gooey cottonwool behind them, sticking to the vine branches. (28)

This excerpt is particularly striking not only for its vivid imagery, but for Komporaly’s ability to capture the musicality of Panainte’s original text: the stops of beetle / blockhead / blossoms / black merging with the plosives of caterpillars / cocoons / gooey / cottonwool / sticking, and the repetition of consonants that I imagine affecting an audience on a rhythmic level, stirring up a sense of unease and sympathy for the characters solely through sound. 

The following play, The Spectator Sentenced to Death by Matéi Visniec, is a major tonal shift, a sharp and hilarious absurdist parody of a totalitarian justice system. Guilt and innocence are irrelevant, pedantry rules supreme. Originally written in the early 1980s as Romania was undergoing severe austerity measures in its economy and political unrest was brewing, the play was used as evidence to blacklist Visniec and only produced decades later in France, with its Romanian premiere several years later at the National Theatre of Cluj. 

Following this play is a genre shift into realism with The Passport by György Dragomán, a bleak and cutting drama about a middle-class Transylvanian family in the 1980s. When Gyuri is blackmailed by his lover, the daughter of the head of the local secret police, the entire family’s private lives and transgressions are laid bare as Annamari, his sixteen-year-old daughter, is offered to the secret police chief in exchange for the family’s passports to leave the country. 

The Man Who Had His Inner Evil Removed is also by Matéi Visniec, and while I originally wondered why this anthology needed two of his plays when other playwrights or theatre groups could be featured, the inclusion of two texts from the same playwright showcases the journey of an artist across political and geographic movements. In this bizarre, deeply ambitious satire, humans and rats in a world of increasingly globalizing, morally corrupt, and sensationalist mass media decide that they will merge. The play might sound long-winded or overly philosophizing, if not for the absurdity of the stage directions offering rich stagecraft and choreographic possibilities to be interspersed among thicker language. For instance, Eric, a celebrity journalist, interacts with a group of rats in a way that reveals character through gesture and collective movement:

Eric walks across the set, followed by his ‘metaphysical group’ of Rats.

When he stops, the Rats stop, too. Eric takes a few steps. So do the Rats

Eric turns around and gazes at the Rats. The Rats look at the floor respectfully, even bashfully, as if they didn’t dare to ‘disturb’.

Eric takes a few steps towards them. The Rats step back in an orderly fashion, reminiscent of a Macedonian phalanx. (196)

The next four plays (or possibly one play, depending on the director), Stories of the Body (Artemisia, Teresa, Eva, Lina) by András Visky, make up a series of scripts that also require directors with clear visions to sculpt and shape the text. In an introductory note, Visky invites theatremakers to experiment with the number of performers in the text, combine or separate the stories, or skip stage directions or sound effects for the sake of clarity. Each play is based on real-life stories of four women across four cities (Budapest, Cluj, Kolkata, Rome) from the seventeenth century to the present. Artemisia relates the trial and testimony of Artimisia Gentileschi, the first professional female painter in the Western world, against her art tutor and rapist, while Teresa conveys the faith struggles of Mother Teresa of Kolkata as a modern-day Antigone. Eva draws on documentary interviews of a Roma-born sex worker in Hungary and her perseverance despite abuses from family and clients. Lina, written in response to the music of Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks, conjures dark fairy-tale images as a former dancer deals with the mutilation of her body and its political symbolism for her family and nationalist identities: “After the Great War, Hungary was called a maimed stump. The war amputated its limbs. Hands, legs, everything. It was amputated all round. It lost the war, so this is what happened, it got punished. My family didn’t remain in the main body, in the half moon-shaped torso, but ended up in the Eastern stump” (305).

The final play, Sexodrom, is a work devised by members of the Roma Theatre Company Giuvlipen exploring queer politics, Roma visibility, and controversial subjects such as the #MeToo movement within a game framework reminiscent of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, with performers “fighting” for the opportunity to perform their stories. Most impressively translated from this piece are song lyrics, starting with a schoolyard rhyme, segueing into other songs (whose genre can seemingly vary according to future productions), and culminating with a 14-stanza rap.

While an anthology is meant to showcase a selection and not serve as an exhaustive collection, Komporaly’s introduction notes that “a regrettable absence from this collection is Romanian Jewish drama,” despite a rich legacy in Romania, with the State Jewish Theatre Bucharest holding the notable position of being “the oldest Yiddish-language theatre with uninterrupted activity in the world” (4). While the introduction mentions that the absence is due largely to a lack of contemporary plays that would fit in the anthology, I decided to reach out to Komporaly for additional context, which led to a conversation about the tension between theatres’ finances and roles as cultural bearers. Unsurprisingly, the situation in Romania sounds similar to experiences of other playwrights and theatremakers worldwide: it can be difficult to take risks on new plays or new writers if financial safety nets or audience buy-in are uncertain. And while there is merit in continuing to produce traditional works, are there urgent, contemporary stories that lie low due to our reliance on the security of the past?

My hope is that this anthology can inspire readers, theatre practitioners, and theatre lovers to champion more stories from these communities and other marginalized groups by introducing these plays into classrooms, theatre companies, and other performance and educational spaces. In addition to scripts and an introduction synthesizing the current state of the contemporary Romanian theatre landscape, this volume also includes a foreword and afterword from artistic directors (Brighton Theatre and Chicago-based Theater Y, respectively), as well as play synopses, development histories, and production posters, reminding us that the text we read in these pages craves to be voiced aloud and witnessed collectively by others. Through this collection spanning a wide range of genres, writing techniques, and dramatic traditions, Komporaly has raised a spotlight on theatre in Romania and its multilingual, subversive perspectives from bold transnational artists making sense of historical abuses and imagining how to bravely move to new futures.

Amanda L. Andrei is a playwright, literary translator, and theater critic based in Los Angeles. She writes epic, irreverent plays that center the concealed, wounded places of history from the perspectives of diasporic Filipina women, and she translates from Romanian to English with Codin Andrei, her father. Recent translations include Tatiana Niculescu’s Brancusi v. United States and Oana Hodade’s Scenes from the Life of the Family Stuck. MA: Georgetown, MFA: University of Southern California.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, February 21, 2023

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