Thirteen men and women stand in a semicircle. Several of them are wearing hammer and sickle-shaped headdresses. Some are carrying wrenches; others, flowers. They are all singing the refrain “Drac-u-laaa.” And in the center of it all, there is a man, slowly turning, pretending to draw a cape to the tip of his nose.
This may be what you’d expect to dream about if you mixed a Bram Stoker novel with a healthy portion of borscht. But, no. This is just a day of rehearsal for the American Repertory Theatre’s (A.R.T.) Oct.18 world premiere of “The Communist Dracula Pageant,” written by Anne Washburn and directed by Anne Kauffman.
“The Communist Dracula Pageant” is a dark, satirical tragicomedy that explores the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Taking place in three different time periods, the play journeys from the 15th century reign of Vlad Tepes (aka Count Dracula); to 1976, when Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceauﬂescu, and his wife, Elena, commissioned gaudy pageants to celebrate their nation’s glory; to the Ceauﬂescus’ two-hour trial and execution for genocide in 1989.
“It’s an antic mishmash of rumor and fact and history and fiction,” says Washburn, who wrote the play for her thesis as a graduate student at New York University 10 years ago. “I researched it, and I became fascinated by the stolen nature of the revolution, by the mad theater of the whole thing.”
The mad theatricality of the event is what drew director Kauffman to the play as well. Kauffman views the play’s emphasis on the pageant as an essential element for understanding the self-delusion of the two Romanian leaders, who were obsessed with their own cults of personality (Nicolae, for instance, was known to force fellow hunters to pile their game behind him to maximize photo opportunities). Says Kauffman: “The chaos of this play and the humor of this play and the tragedy of this play are all under the umbrella of a pageant … and we’re asking audiences to kind of step into the mess with us a little bit.”
Kauffman and Washburn are used to delving into the past and sorting through historical clutter. This is the third time that they have worked together; their last collaboration was on 2004’s “The Ladies,” in which Washburn examined the lives of four infamous first ladies: Imelda Marcos, Eva Peron, Jiang Qing (aka Madame Mao), and Elena Ceauﬂescu.
Considering Washburn and Kauffman’s historical interests and the play’s political commentary on leaders’ impact on the writing of history and the use of pageantry, it is tempting to make comparisons with the current political climate in the United States. Washburn and Kauffman, however, are happy to leave such associations to the audience.
Washburn says, “I’m interested in situations where people have to act without all of the facts. The event is fascinating to me because it was a kind of vast theater that the Romanian people engaged in fully.” The play’s subtitle, “By Americans, for Americans with Hallucinations, Phosphorescence, and Bears,” also serves as a reminder that these events are viewed through the distinctive gaze of an American.
For Kauffman, 90 percent of whose directorial experience includes premieres, it is just this type of definition-defying, multi-interpretative work that she believes is lacking in American theater. “I think that American theater is about a hundred years behind everyone else. I think that theater in America has been calcified. We need to have a revolution! Anywhere else in the world a play like this would not be considered strange; it would be considered bread and butter.”
Both Washburn and Kauffman believe that the A.R.T. is the perfect home for the world premiere of “The Communist Dracula Pageant.” “A.R.T. has such a storied tradition of complex and challenging theater … we feel that we can do what we need to do and that the audience will be game,” says Washburn.
Kauffman, who returns to the A.R.T. after assistant-directing Molière’s “The Imaginary Invalid” in 1998, agrees, “I always thought of the A.R.T. as one of those rare phenomena … they feel very risky. Lester [2008-9 Season Director Gideon Lester] is interested in the chaos of new work. It is special … and encouraging.”
Vampires, autocrats, and bloody executions aside, Kauffman and Washburn are just excited to present a play that will entertain their audience. Says Kauffman: “From the kind of scope of the pageant and then the very intimate moments in the play and the way that it gives clarity to a kind of grotesque tragedy. … I find that [to be] a really worthwhile explanation of how we can both entertain an audience and then have them deeply feel the terror and the fear and the oppression that happened in this country. I love when real extremes live in one world. I think that’s the height of great writing … and the height of great theater, too.”