The Communist Dracula Pageant

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 24, 2008

Karen MacDonald and Thomas Derrah star as The Ceausescus
Karen MacDonald and Thomas Derrah star as The Ceausescus  (Source:ART / Michael Lutch)

Mimi Lien's set for the world premiere of The Communist Dracula Pageant resembles the stage of a variety show, with its depiction of plush red velvet drapes and its silver archway. It also calls to mind a royal court. Both associations are appropriate for the play, which is subtitled, "By Americans, For Americans, With Hallucinations, Phosphorescence, And Bears."

In the subtitle's mention of hallucinations, there's a reference, witting or otherwise, to a third inescapable association to those red drapes: the supernatural Lodge in which strange doings unfolded in David Lynch's early 1990s series Twin Peaks.

Like that series, The Communist Dracula Pageant is loaded with imagery and eager to plunge into the surreal. Also like Twin Peaks, there's a cast of oddballs and nut-cases, not least of which are Romania's own first citizens, Mr. and Mrs. Nicolae Ceausescu (played by A.R.T. regulars Thomas Derrah, sporting a lethal-looking head of hair--call it The Iron Scalp--and Karen MacDonald).

The Ceausescus (the name, by the way, is pronounced Chow-shes-ku) ruled over Romania like any good Soviet-era tyrant... and then some: their reign was so punishing that the moment the wall fell and the Soviet system came apart, the two of them were arrested, put on trial, and put to death, with Nicolae Ceausescu refusing to recognize the authority of the court even to accept the efforts of his defense attorney.

The play weaves together the fantasies of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu (despite her fourth grade education, she imagined herself to be a world-class researcher; he thought of himself as a great defender and beloved, beneficent leader of his nation, in spite of the fact that he was none of those things) with the legend of Vlad Tepes, better know as Vlad the Impaler--even better known as Dracula.

A 15th century nobleman and military leader, Tepes was a scourge of the Turks, and the ruler (with interruptions: he kept being driven away from the throne) of Wallachia, which today is part of Romania. Today, Vlad Tepes is remembered as the guy who impaled his enemies and then hoisted their skewered bodies up to dangle on long spears. His domestic policies were much the same: impaling was the preferred method of execution for Wallachian criminals (including woman whose virtue was questioned).

The fact that this play is being stage just before the presidential election is a big raspberry to the waning Bush administration, and this production makes no pretense nor apology about it. Even as Ceausescu confers with his imaginary friend Vlad Tepes (Will LeBow), who appears to him in order to dispense helpful tips on tyranny and sadism, Tepes recalls an infamous occasion on which, in order to deny the invading Sultan Mohammad II resources, Tepes, in retreat, poisoned his own country's wells and rivers, and scorched the earth behind him. (The program contains a helpful essay on Tepes written by dramatology student Beck Holden, plus biographical details and a time-line of Ceausescu's life and career.)

As Tepes holds forth exultantly about sending his troops to rape the women and burn the villages of his own country, all to leave the Turks dazzled at his ruthless display of will, the audience is clearly expected to flash on the Iraq war and the economic meltdown; the Ceausescus' levels of fantasy, in their high-flown grandeur and their presentation, one nested inside another with song and dance and the ghosts of dictatorships past, carry a bite of satire that's hard to miss.

The ensemble (including A.R.T. players Remo Airaldi and John Kuntz, along with Kaaron Briscoe, Sheila Carrasco, Shawn Cody, Mathew Maher, James Senti, Josh Stamell, and Roger K. Stewart) and the "pageanteers" (Ada Eli Clem, John M. Costa, Wayne Fritsche, and Carrie Ann Quinn) later play their parts as a band of barely competent revolutionaries who, the program explains, were later suspected of merely presenting what was, in fact, a coup d'etat as a popular uprising. In any event, no one knows exactly what took place during the revolution, other than that it was not only televised, it was (according to this play) partially staged: one more fantasy and one more deception to be endured by a nation that had struggled under the yoke of such fabrications for decades.

The central point is clear enough: tyranny takes may forms, and when a people is oppressed as much by propaganda and fantasy as by military might, the very idea of reality seems uncertain, even remote. One senses the playwright, Anne Washburn, is screaming behind the play's frantically comic, cruelly clever scenes: screaming with frustration, that is, as well as with warning. Evidently, Washburn, like many Americans, has been puzzled and alarmed to see our own President and his cohort cheerily disregarding facts in favor of fabulism when it comes to forging policy.

From time to time, the players address the audience to advise that Washburn is not making up a scene: the revolutionaries really did gather before a TV camera to broadcast a jubilant, if incoherent, announcement of revolution; the trial of he Ceausescus that we see taking place in a schoolhouse is based on actual transcripts. The eerie thing is that the scenes we are advised are real are sometimes as odd and hazy as the scenes that are clearly written to explore the Ceausescus' delusional frame of mind.

The play boasts visually striking elements culled right from the tradition of horror movies: flashing lightning and rolling thunder, Elena done up as a mad scientist and clutching a beaker of glowing green chemicals, a sudden wash of orange, flaring light like the torches of a peasant army coming to storm the castle.

However, hallucinations and delusions are notoriously tricky devices out of which to try and build a narrative. The play has a quality of skittering out of control, and of suddenly not making sense; there's a feeling that we really don't know what's going on, and there's also a feeling that this is the point. It's engaging theater, but it also leaves one disoriented and wondering what in the hell just happened.

For a play being produced just before Halloween in an election year, The Communist Dracula Pageant perfect; one has to wonder what will become of it the rest of the time.

The Communist Dracula Pageant plays at the Zero Arrow Theatre in Cambridge, located at the corner of Arrow Street and Massachusetts Avenue, through November 9.

Performance schedule: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m; Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 and 7:30 p.m.

Tickets cost $25-$52. Senior citizens receive a $10 discount. Group rates and other discounts are also available. More information is available online at www.amrep.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.