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

Pavi Proczko/Photo: Bogdan Nastase
Pavi Proczko/Photo: Bogdan Nastase

Show: How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients

Company: Trap Door Theatre

Venue: Trap Door Theatre

Die Roll: 10

Very seldom do I leave a theatre asking myself, “What the heck did I just watch?”  Even less often, do I find myself asking that and acknowledging that I enjoyed the show.  However, I admit that such was the case the other night when I exited Trap Door Theatre after taking in their newest offering, “How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients” by Matei Visniec.

I first became aware of Visniec’s work when I read his play “The Body of a Woman as a Battlefield in the War in Bosnia”.  I spent a long time with that play as I considered producing it about 10 years ago.  I learned that Visniec is an intense writer with an odd sense of humor and a wit that is more bludgeon than rapier in its application.  Yet, that play was very straight forward when compared with “How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients”.

Okay, a matter of housekeeping ere I go on: Visniec has a propensity for giving his plays unruly and unmanageable titles.  They are long and function both as didactic statements about the work, and as tongue twisters.  So, from here on out, when I mention the show that’s happening at Trap Door, I’ll call it “Communism”, and if I mention the other play again, I’ll dub it “Body of a Woman”.  Any future mentions of any of his other plays will first mention the entire title and then offer up an alternative way of referring to it in parentheses.  Egad, man!  You could’ve used an editor!

Alright, back to the content of this review.  Visniec is a Romanian writer who has lived a major portion of his life in France, largely owing to his previous status as a political dissident on the run from his formerly Communist homeland.  As you may guess, then, his work is not a friendly piece of Communist propaganda.  Quite the contrary.  However, that being said, director Zoltán Balázs’ production doesn’t always make that clear.  In fact there are a lot of things that are unclear throughout the play.  How much of that is by design remains unclear even as I write this.

Pavi Proczko, Michael Garvey, Benjamin Ponce, and Ann Sonneville/Photo: Bogdan Nastase
Pavi Proczko, Michael Garvey, Benjamin Ponce, and Ann Sonneville/Photo: Bogdan Nastase

What is clear is that the aesthetic employed by Balázs to tell the tale is embraced fully by the acting corps.  Led by Pavi Proczko in the role of Yuri Petrovski, the troupe is fully versed in the physical acting methods that make European theatre so vibrant and muscular.  Each actor tackles a handful of characters and defines them through postures and feats of bodily manipulation that add to the tension and evoke emotional responses beyond what the text might do on its own. Not unlike the methods of Lecoq, Laban, and Grotowski, before him, Balázs has developed a physical acting method that can build and communicate a story without words.  It is a beautiful thing to watch.

Where Balázs seems to have fallen short with this production is in making the decisions that would guide the actors to tell a tale more coherently.  At its root, the play is the story of the aforementioned Yuri Petrovski´s arrival and residence at a Mental Institution during the height of Stalin’s power over the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Yuri Petrovski (his full name always being used, a familiar motif in Russian literature) has ostensibly been sent to find a way to instruct the mentally unstable about the glories of his country by way of literary recitation.  Throughout the play, there are other vignettes which interrupt this basic tale.  Periodically, there is a betting game that goes on, which we might suppose involves some of the inmates watching passersby outside the institute’s windows.  This is entirely a supposition based upon the text of the scene, though, and not terribly well-informed by the action.  The action for the gambling sections (which are repeated nearly word-for-word multiple times throughout the play) is frantic and intense, but sadly doesn’t aid in elevating the scenes to any addition level of understanding.

Each scene or vignette, within the mental ward’s world or in the other more nebulous settings, features the strengths of the actors in unique ways.  Simina Contras shines as a Stalin-obsessed nymphomaniac who happens to be a nurse at the hospital.  Benjamin Ponce also shines in his portrayal of one of the residents of the mental ward.  Ponce’s characterization of the moderately unstable Timofei is eerie.  His physicality embodies the frightening unpredictability that confronts those who are in a paranoid state.  Ann Sonneville controls the audience’s attention in a scene that takes place prior to the show’s official start.  At that time four actors meticulously scrub the set with toothbrushes. In one rehearsal years ago I was taught that even the smallest action can be entrancing when done authentically.  So it is with Sonneville’s pre-show routine.  She also teams with Contras during a scene later in the play to present the character of Ribbentrop-Molotov, who adds a ridiculous amount of absurdity to an already skewed kangaroo court.  Michael Garvey’s imposing presence and agile use of Aaron O’Neill’s set creates some of the evening’s most distinct and memorable characters.  When he confronts Yuri Petrovski about being subversive, the tension and threat is palpable.  When he is a masked figure holding forth during a meeting of undercover revolutionaries, he takes the stage as his own, despite his actions being limited to a doorway.  Finally, Beata Pilch guides us through the play as the director of the hospital, but also as a physical presence that is somewhat akin to having an on-stage assistant director, advising us in how to watch the show and where to direct our attentions.  She is fully immersed in the created world, and we become more so when she is present.

Pavi Proczko, Ann Sonneville, ande Simina Contras/Photo: Bogdan Nastase
Pavi Proczko, Ann Sonneville, ande Simina Contras/Photo: Bogdan Nastase

When this show is clicking along at its most effective, we can tell which actor is what character.  And those moments are worthy of the mentions above.  But for much of the show the characters are blurred.  The sharpness that creates the memorable moments disappears and leaves us with border-less personifications that run together and create the confusion that throws our own perception of the play off.  Perhaps this is intentional.  Perhaps we are intended to feel displaced and akimbo.  If that is the case, then success has been attained.  For, I found myself wondering whether Yuri Petrovski were not really supposed to teach the mental patients, but that he was one himself.  And then a step further, I found myself wondering if perhaps we were all supposed to feel as unstable as the characters within the play.

Here is where I think that supposition falls apart: Prozcko actually plays three characters within this play.  I never could tell that he wasn’t his primary character.  In fact, in the play’s final scene he plays Stalin (or, given past interpretations of the play, perhaps Stalin’s ghost).  As far as I can tell, the script of “Communism” pulls much of this show together by having the ghost of Stalin walk by outside a window, which in turn means that one particular player in the gambling scenes actually wins.  However, due to the staging choices made by Balázs, the entire play is thrown into doubt when the entire cast starts to address Yuri Petrovski as Stalin and then interacts directly with him as such.  I don’t want to ruin the end of the play by explaining the staging itself, for the final scene is one of the most visually interesting of the show.  However, it is directly responsible for throwing off any sense of understanding that I’d gathered up to that point.  In fact, it is exactly why I left wondering what on Earth I may have just watched.

I admire what was done on Trap Door’s stage in this production.  It raises far more questions than it gives answers.  It creatively and effectively forces an out of this world universe upon its audience and unapologetically challenges us to join the actors within it.  But, I think creating the world is only the first step to making a perfect play.  What we do as theatre artists is tell stories.  When exercising our world-building muscles, we must be careful not to lose sight of the story itself.  And, we must make sure that our audience doesn’t lose sight of it, as well.

TEN WORD SUMMARYOff kilter reds do things. I hunger for an explanation.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”