How to Explain the History
of Communism to Mental Patients
Now extended thru April 30th!
Obscure work is less than the sum of its parts
|Trap Door Theatre presents|
|How to Explain the History
of Communism to Mental Patients
Review by Clint May
The so-called “crazies” taking over the “nuthouse” is a common enough theme in literature, particularly an absurdist+existentialist drama such as How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients. Like The Last Cyclist, it concerns itself with a very literal madhouse where the lines between what is and what is not sanity blur into meaninglessness.
Something is lost in the translation of Matei Visniec’s work here, and what limited productions I could find point to something telling. This LA production from 2000 lists the run time at two and a half hours, while Trap Door’s is a mere 70 minutes. Far be it from me to say a show be lengthened, but a slightly less judicious hand may have ensured that the second half of this production didn’t move outside absurdity and into sheer confusion.
Set a few weeks before Stalin’s death in 1953, the action takes place wholly within a Moscow-based insane asylum. Yuri (Pavi Proczko) is a Stalin-approved writer brought to the hospital to fulfill director Dekanozov’s (Beata Pilch) brilliant idea to bring the wonders of Communism to the mentally disturbed. “Socialism cannot be victorious without the transformation of man.” she extolls. This includes the spectrum of mentally afflicted patients under her care. Yuri is told to use simple words to craft stories of the glorious October Revolution that will penetrate the dim recesses of the hospital’s charges. He’ll have to do this while dealing with the denizens of this nightmare and its arguably more insane staff. Nurse Katia (Simina Contras) sexually fetishizes all things Stalin and the knowledge that Yuri once touched the “great” leader’s hand turns him into a totemic locus point.
"’Utopia’ is when you are in deep shit and you want to get out." is Yuri’s grand insight into the nature of Communism’s birth. With those simple words he begins his s-bomb laden tale of Lenin and Stalin and how it all started with grand intentions only to be corrupted by the intoxication of power. Unless you are totally new to the idea of Communism and its history, there’s nothing particularly revelatory about Yuri’s streamlined version of events. As Yuri continues his farcical decent, he encounters people who may or may not be political dissidents thrown into the mental hospital for convenience (a less known-fate than the more well-known banishment to Siberia or straight up execution).
It’s telling that the comparatively anemic Wikipedia entry on Visniec says of his style only that a fellow Romanian literary critic calls it “bizarre, unclassifiable.” It’s easy to see why. Mental Patients is part absurdist, part existentialist, part political commentary, part expressionism. One of the main problems with blending these things is that the best absurdist dramas don’t aim at any particular real-world corollary. Polish author Slawomir Mrozek’s The Emigrants—one of my favorite absurdist pieces—also concerns itself with political themes but never names the country or systems that ensnare its protagonists. By directly going after communism, Mental Patients loses some chances to become universal while adding little new to the discourse.
Yuri’s dreamlike experiences in an asylum that is in and of itself communism made manifest is an on-the-nose metaphor that works counter to what absurdity does best: showing us our world at an oblique enough angle to offer a new insight. But if Visniec is truly “unclassifiable,” that’s an unfair burden to place upon his work. Perhaps the critical lens for this needs polishing. That still doesn’t explain how the latter portion of his work becomes extremely muddled to the point of off-putting, but again, that missing time leaves me wondering what this show looked like in 2000.
It’s not aided by a too-stiff turn from Proczko, which is contrasted by his fluid movements. I never bought him as a perplexed, possibly sane man in an insane world working to subvert through brute force honesty. Thankfully the best part of Trap Door’s great Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, Simina Contras, remains an absolutely mesmerizing stage presence, even when it’s only her disembodied voice calling out bets on the patients’ window-watching game. I would go to any show advertising her participation. Similarly, Pilch is magnetically maniacal in multiple roles, the director of the loony bin turned full on loon.
Despite the flaws, Director Zoltán Balázs creates extremely spellbinding vignettes in what amounts to a sort of slow-motion work of contemporary movement art. Aaron O’Neill’s simple set of cascading doors provides a perfect ethereal counterpart for the insanity.
We’re left with a production that is better in the parts than the whole. A better moral for Yuri’s Utopian fiction might be found in that lesser known Latin phrase, “semper in faecibus sumus sole, profundum variat.” Translation: We are always in the shit. Only the depth varies.
How to Explain… continues through
April 23 April 30th at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $20-$25, and are available by phone (773-384-0494) or online through TicketLeap.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TrapDoorTheatre.com. (Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Bogdan Nastase
Pavi Proczko (Yuri Petrovski, Kouhkine, Stalin), Michael Garvey (Stepan Rozanov, Ivan Mikado Gamaroski, Patient, Dream Chorus), Beata Pilch (Director Dekanozov, Professor Gagaine, Patient, Dream Chorus), Simina Contras (Katia Ezova, The Dealer, Dream Chorus, The Man Who Knew Stalin), Ann Sonneville (Nadejda Alliloueva, Patient, Dream Chorus, Ribbentrop-Molotov), Benjamin Ponce (Timofei, Patient, Dream Chorus, The Man who knew Stalin)
behind the scenes
Zoltán Balázs (director), Aaron O’Neill (set design), Richard Norwood (lighting design), Rachel Sypniewski (costume design), Danny Rockett (music composer), Emily Lotspeich, Gary Damico (stage managers), Zsofia Otvos (makeup designer), Michal Janicki (graphic design), Milan Pribisic (dramaturg), Bogdan Nastase (photos)