Review: How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients (Trap Door Theatre)

| March 22, 2016

Pavi Proczko, Ann Sonnevile and Simina Contras in How to Explain, Trapdoor          

How to Explain the History
Communism to Mental Patients

Written by Matei Visniec
Translated by Jeremy Lawrence
  and Catherine Popesco
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
thru Apr 30  |  tix: $20-$25  | more info
Check for half-price tickets   

Now extended thru April 30th!


Obscure work is less than the sum of its parts


Pavi Proczko, Michael Garvey, Benjamin Ponce and Ann Sonneville in How to Explain

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.

Ann Sonneville and Beata Pilch in How to Explain Communism, TrapdoorSomething 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).

Pavi Proczko in How to Explain Communism, Trapdoor Theatre Pavi Proczko, Ann Sonnevile and Simina Contras in How to Explain, Trapdoor

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.

Rating: ★★

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 (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 70 minutes, no intermission)

How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients at Trapdoor Theatre !

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)


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Category: 2016 Reviews, Adaptation, Clint May, Extensions-Remounts, Trapdoor Theatre

Comments (1)

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  1. Dan Noel says:

    Clint May’s review of How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients sees the play as moving “outside absurdity and into sheer confusion.” I did not see confusion but a great deal of symbolism that may not be immediately apparent to an American audience.

    The play’s writer Visniec is Romanian, its director Balázs Hungarian. Even at its most absurd points, this play is telling the story of the contradictions of communism from an insider’s perspective. This play defines communism not so much as a government system designed to help the proletariat, but a utopia imposed by mighty Stalin and Lenin. The only problem with the implementation of this utopia is that it keeps coming up against fallible humans, who keep impeding the realization of the utopian vision.

    Of course, the whole idea of a man-made utopia where the mentally ill can be cured by hearing the stories of Lenin and Stalin is absurd. Everyone in the story seems to know the “insanity” of the system, but life must go on and within the crazy confines of these rules all human behavior is altered. The personality cult casts is shadow over all aspects of life including sex, drinking, and art. At times the participants on stage are reduced to simply “place your bets” to pass the time.

    The patients declare a “free-zone” of the hospital where they acknowledge that the whole system is based on lies. Even the great writer “Gorki” himself is a pawn of the Stalinist state. It is only in the free-zone that the human voice can express itself. Nurse Katia literally lets her hair down. We hear genuine music and see spontaneity.

    Hospital leader Dekanozov makes a digression into the topic of airplane crashes. The airplane is the utopian vision forever corrupted by fallible humans. The crashed airplane becomes the metaphor for the failed utopian vision.
    And finally we have the only conclusion about the state of the individual living in such a system.

    While the focus of the production is Communism in the Soviet Union prior to 1953, the play has many universal lessons. The tyranny of personality cults should be particularly relevant to the 2016 Presidential primary season. As the writer reminds us, this particular utopian vision may have passed but it is forever part of the human experience as “Stalin is not dead”.