31 May, 2023
Review of the performance of the Ruse Drama Theatre
Ruse Drama Theatre (foto: Facebook)

Vladinir Mitev

Ruse Drama Theatre’s production Disappearing, directed by Dumitru Acriș, based on a text by Romanian playwright Elise Wilk, will probably be a little difficult to understand for Bulgarian audiences used to theatre serving as a leisure after the end of the working day. In the case of Disappearing (translated by Laura Nenkovska), we are confronted with the drama of characters from four different eras of modern times, who often exercise verbal and physical aggression against each other, and whose stories may at first seem disconnected and chaotic. As I watched the performance on 10th April 2023, two women near me were laughing at what they were hearing and seeing on stage. And after the show ended, one of the audience members described it to her companion as “weird.”

But the messages of the show, which alters Wilk’s original text significantly, are not that hard to decipher if we follow the course of the play carefully. At least two threads linking each of the episodes are striking – the power that makes people lonely and helpless, and the idea of the woman who is not free because she is a slave to another man, and therefore unhappy. These elements exist in the “plot” of every era in which the play is set – Stalinist, mature socialism, transition, and today.

During Stalinism, a young couple is separated, with the man in the couple sent to Siberia. He finds a husband for his girlfriend, a strange and impersonal man who becomes the personification of her slavery. When she finally manages to leave him, she learns from the man himself that her boyfriend has been sending her letters from Siberia that have never reached her. Power has triumphed, it has divided people, it has made them helpless and a shadow of what they could be.

Under mature socialism, the secret services were the power. The characters are a family with a child, where the parents loathe each other but continue to live together. They have fears that they are being watched. The evolution of the characters leads to the mother deciding to choose herself for once and emigrates, leaving her daughter behind. The daughter does not forgive her. But the mother felt unfree, tolerating her husband’s aggression only for the sake of her girl. Is it courage or weakness that she chooses to leave the harrowing situation?

As a continuation of this era is the love story of the daughter with a young man who is homosexual. In time, we learn that he was forced to become an informant and reported on his girlfriend’s family. But to protect his beloved he wrote only positive things about her and her parents. 

In this third era, the transition, the collective is important. We understand this from the specific humor of one of the heroines, humor based on popular jokes and cynicism expressing the “wisdom” of the masses. The daughter is unfree because she seems unable to choose herself. Despite her friend’s weaknesses, she continues to rely on him. 

In the fourth era, an elderly relative returns from Germany and tells how he felt alone during the holidays, and because his cell phone provider gave him 1,000 free texts, he began texting greetings to strangers. One of the numbers sweared him, but when they got talking, it turned out that there was a young woman behind him, so the two arranged a meeting.

In this case, the unfree woman was the daughter of a mother who needed special care. The daughter complains that she does not live and is only tied to her mother whose condition does not change.

Suggestions and messages thus emerge that provide food for thought and perhaps may even prompt awareness and action. One of them is about the unconscious but well understood need of each of the unfree women to serve freedom, to be a free spirit. Compromise with freedom leads to consent to endure violence, which is almost always unnecessary and pointless because the sacrifice is not appreciated by anyone.

The other message is about the pathology of power and trauma in any age. Once it was the Stalinists, then the secret services, then public opinion, and finally the corporations. In the face of all power, the common man is helpless and alone. We can guess that power enables him to satiate his own emptiness or powerlessness, and so he fails to develop in himself the character and personality to relate adequately to the unfree woman and for her to become free.

The societal picture drawn by Disappearing is joyless. At the end of the play, each of the characters announces when and how they lived out the rest of their lives and died without leaving a trace. In a way we are looking at the characters with the eyes of the director or playwright. And it’s a logical question of what we, the viewers, should do so that we aren’t another “disappearing” ones too. If we believe the spirit of the show, the true love could perhaps tame the all-powerful authority and overcome the alienation it imposes. But is this message catching up with us at a time when we have already learned too many wrong lessons just like the characters in the show? And how can we forget or rewrite them?

Two curious details make the show one with multilayered messages. The first is that the people in each era are the different generations of a family. That is, we are dealing with a transgenerational trauma defining women’s inability to be free. The second is that the play is set among the Romanian German-speaking community, to which Elise Wilk herself belongs. The characters are Romanians with a natural predisposition to travel and live in Germany. They have another place to escape to and still somehow feel like they belong.

From two independent sources, I learned that the director Dumitru Acriș has significantly altered the original text of the play. I wonder what the differences are with the production of Disappearing at the Romanian theatres in Târgu Mureș and Sfântu Gheorghe. My conclusion – the ability to self-define, including through rebellion, can make us human, leaving a mark on this world. This is what the performance of the Ruse theatre left in me.

I end with Elise Wilk’s words about her own writing:

“I’ve been writing fiction since I was 8 and plays since I was a teenager, so stories have always been a part of my life. I believe the human need to tell and listen to stories will never go away. That’s why I believe a play should, first and foremost, tell a story. And since all stories have already been told, as a playwright I am always on the lookout for new structures and new ways to tell stories. A theatrical text is a house, and I am its architect. The architecture of a text is very important to me, and I try to build my plays like musical compositions, where each character has their own voice.”

The void between people is huge in the play Disappearing of the Ruse Drama Theatre (source: Ruse Drama Theatre)

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