Political Play Promises Potent Halloween Brew

by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday October 18, 2008

To listen to playwright Anne Washburn describe The Communist Dracula Project, opening at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge on October 18 and running through November 8, there is no coincidence that scheduling the play takes place just before we go to the polls to vote in the national election.

"The subtitle of the play is 'by Americans and for Americans,'" Washburn says. "We want audiences to draw an analogy between Romania and the United States, and to look at what happens when leaders have agendas that take the people through fascinating and horrific experiences."

The play is having its world premiere at ART. In preparing to write the play, Washburn traveled to Romania on a travel grant and immersed herself in Romanian politics. She found that many areas of the country's modern history are still clouded due to the secrecy and bafflement of the Romanian people themselves who were often kept in the dark about the political events being plotted behind their backs.

The fact that the play is being produced during our American obsession with Halloween isn't lost on Washburn, either. ART is fond of presenting plays with perfect pitch timing to our collective calendars. Last season, a dark and politically skewed production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" (drawing analogies to the Kennedy presidency) ran at the theatre during the Ides of March, when Caesar was assassinated.

So, along comes another play with portentous political underpinnings, this one depicting the follies and foibles of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

"Ceausescu, along with his wife Elena, who perpetrated the chaos that the play depicts, was well aware he was called Dracula by the people," Washburn adds, noting that we are speaking near the graveyard in Harvard Square near the Unitarian Church.

What the play is not about are the atrocities that occurred in Romania preceding the Ceausescu reign that paved the way for the Communist agenda of blue smoke, mirrors, cruelty and deception. The systematic herding of Jews and others from their homes has been chronicled by writers like Elie Wiesel, a Romanian native and Holocaust survivor who has frequently drawn the parallels between the Nazis and Dracula. The Nazis, he once wrote "sucked the blood of Jews." Indeed, throughout history, Romania has been trampled upon and ravaged.

But what fascinates the playwright - who does not weave the Holocaust into this play -- is the weird fantasy life of the Ceausescus, "the compelling mixture of fact and fiction, rumor and television," she says. "It was an empire of the imagination." Add the myth of Dracula into this mix and you have the makings of a potent Halloween brew, and the ghoulishness will be felt in subtle, and not-so subtle ways.

Anne Kaufman, whose task is to take all of these disparate political elements and weave them into an onstage event that pulls audiences in, says, as a director, she is an "adherent of Brecht's philosophy that the politics of the day can be interpreted through a presentation of events that are outside the audience's experience."

What immediately springs to mind is Brecht's play "The Life of Galileo," written (and later banned) during the perilous times of the Nazi Third Reich (when he was deemed a "degenerate" by Hitler's thought police). It is at once the story of the sixteenth century Italian astronomer forced to recant his celestial discoveries or face the wrath of the Church, as it is about 20th century citizens whose lives suffered similar silencing due to governmental censorship. And so is this play that chronicles historical fact while holding a mirror and asking us to reflect on the successes, failures and follies of our own political process.

"This play is in essence a pageant of humor, tragedy, pathos, politics, chaos, darkness and light," Kaufman says. "We want audiences to enjoy themselves. 'The Communist Dracula Pageant' is an entertaining show. And we want audiences to draw parallels to their lives in this country, to explore what is familiar and what's not. It's a complex to present a play in this manner, because it is not black and white. Like Brecht, we are posing questions about what we see on stage and what we see in our own lives, in our own land. These are question that the audience needs to answer for itself."

As we race toward an election and a night of ghoulishness, these are portentous questions, indeed.

The Communist Dracula Project runs through November 9, at the Zero Arrow Theatre, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, Mass. For schedule and ticket information visit the American Repertory Theatre website.

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.